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Britain Sixty Years Ago (VII): Between Two Worlds, 1958-63   Leave a comment

Notting Hill, 1958 and After: Pity the Poor Immigrant…?


Just as in the time of the Blair-Brown administrations of a decade ago, sixty years ago it was not regarded as respectable to express concerns about immigration to Britain, much less to voice anti-immigrant feeling. At both ends of the fifty year period of general prosperity, the elite turned its eyes and ears away from the door-slamming and shunning, and escaped into well-meant, windy generalities about the brotherhood of man and fellow-citizens of the Crown, or more latterly vacuous epithets about celebrating a mythological multi-cultural Cool Britannia, a land at ease with itself.  Most of the hostility was at the level of street culture, mostly covert and casual but occasionally overtly aggressive and violent, organised or orchestrated by white gangs of ‘nigger-hunting’ Teddy boys and small groups of right-wing extremists. The main motivation seems to have been young male testosterone-led territory-marking.



From Austerity to Affluence: Britain, 1945-64.

This all came to a head in 1958 with the Notting Hill riots, more an event which symbolised change than one of real, bloody slaughter. In reality, no-one was killed in the rampaging and, by the standards of later rioting, there was little physical damage to either people or property. The trouble actually started in the poor St Ann’s district of Nottingham and only spread to London’s Notting Hill a day later. On 18 August, the Times reported on the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people and how some Conservative MPs saw it as a red light warning of further troubles to come. They intended to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembled in October. Thirty of them had already signed a motion (never debated) during the previous session, which had expressed their disquiet over…

… the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance.

Even before the outbreak of the riots at Notting Hill, Norman Pannell, Tory MP for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool and leader of this group, had tabled a similarly worded resolution on the agenda of their autumn Party Conference. Pannell had commented to the Times the previous day:

The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

Yet what happened at Notting Hill was a large and deeply unpleasant outbreak of anti-immigrant violence which ran for a total of six days, across two late summer weekends. It was no coincidence that Notting Hill was the area where the rioting happened as distinct from, say, Brixton, which also had a very large and visible black population by the mid-fifties. Notting Hill had the most open, well-known street culture for black people, with Soho on one side and the new BBC headquarters on the other. This sub-culture was also well-advertised and celebrated by hacks, broadcasters and novelists. Known for its gambling dens and drinking-clubs, it also had a resentful and impoverished white population and, more importantly, in the words of two historians of British immigration put it:

It had multi-occupied houses with families of different races on each floor. It had a large population of internal migrants, gypsies and Irish, many of them transient single men, packed into a honeycomb of rooms with communal kitchens, toilets and no bathrooms.

Into this honeycomb poured a crowd first of tens, and then of hundreds of white men, armed first with sticks, knives, iron railings and bicycle chains, and soon with petrol-bombs too. They were overwhelmingly young,  mostly from nearby areas of London, and looking for trouble. They began by picking on small groups of blacks caught out on the streets, beating them and chasing them. They then moved to black-occupied houses and began smashing windows. The crowds swelled out until they were estimated at more than seven hundred strong, whipped up by the occasional neo-fascist agitator, but much more directed by local whites. Racist songs and chants of ‘niggers out’, the smashing of windows – although some local whites protected and fought for their black neighbours – this was mob violence of a kind that Brits thought they had long left behind. They shrunk away again, however, at the sight of black men making a stand, and fighting back with petrol bombs. There were a hundred and forty arrests, mainly of white youths, and though far-right parties continued to organise in the area, there was no discernible electoral impact, or indeed any more serious trouble. The huge press coverage ensured, however, that Britain went through its first orgy of national naval-gazing about its liberalism and its immigration policy, while overseas racist régimes such as those of South Africa and Rhodesia mocked their hang-wringing British cousins.

After the riots, many black people did ‘go home’. Returns to the Caribbean soared to more than four thousand. There, West Indian governments expressed outrage at the riots and made it clear that there would be no action by them to restrict migration in order to appease lawless white thugs. The Commonwealth retained a loose association between Crown, obligation and common citizenship which felt real to politicians of both parties. Pressure to close the open border for Commonwealth citizens hardly increased in the Tory Party after the Notting Hill riots, though extra-parliamentary campaigns, such as the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, did spring up. Of course, given that the violence was directed against immigrants by whites, it would have been grossly unfair had the first reaction been to send people home. Labour was wholly against restricting immigration, arguing that it would be disastrous to our status within the Commonwealth. 

The Notting Hill Carnival, begun the following year, was an alternative response, celebrating black culture openly. For many black migrants, the riots marked the beginning of assertion and self-organisation. They were looked back on as a ‘racial Dunkirk’, the darkest moment after which the real fightback began. Even in the ‘darkest’ days of 1958, there was a lighter side to the popular street culture which those ‘journalists’ who dared or bothered to walk the same streets, discovered for themselves. An Irish informant told T R Fyvel, author of The Insecure Offenders (1961) that the excessive interest of Teddy Boys in their own and each other’s clothes and hair-styles revealed a basic effeminacy and nothing else:

If you look into the motive you will find it was largely jealousy… of the girls for being the centre of attention. They just couldn’t stand not having it all to themselves. If you had listened to these Teds as I did when they stood about in dance-halls, all you would hear about was clothes and style. One would say: “I paid seventeen guineas for this suit at so-and-so’s”, the other, “I paid this new Jew tailor nineteen guineas for mine.” They could talk literally for hours about styles and cut and prices, the way you usually only hear women talk. But even if they all weren’t effeminate, though I know some of them were, the main thing with these Teds was that they had to outshine the way the girls dressed by the way they themselves were dressed. The Teddy boy was always the person who had to stand out.


Within the young British West Indian community, clothes and hair did not need to be of a certain cut or style at this time; it was the “patois” which had a special role as a token of identity. But it was not a simple role for newly arrived immigrants, as one Jamaican schoolgirl living in London explained the complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican Creole in Jamaica, but that made it almost obligatory in London:

It’s rather weird ‘cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican Creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well … You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, “You sound really nice, quite different.” Other people say, “You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ‘cos you’re not like us.”

Despite this mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it, “after a year, I lost my British accent, and was accepted.” But this was not, strictly speaking, Jamaican English. For many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was of a stylised form that was not, as they heard it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had arrived from all over the Caribbean. Another British West Indian schoolgirl, who was born in Britain, was teased for her patois when she visited the Caribbean for the first time:

 I haven’t lived in Jamaica, right? But what I found  when I went out there was that when I tried to speak Jamaican (Creole) they laughed at me. They said I’m trying to copy them and I don’t sound right and that. They want me to speak as I speak now.

The experience convinced her that “in London, the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ‘Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into Patois as well.” By the early 1980s, investigators found that there were white children in predominantly black schools who used the British West Indian patois in order to be acceptable to the majority of their friends:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast. 

On the other hand, the same schoolboy knew that the creole was something for a special set of circumstances:

But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

The unconscious racism of such comments points to the predicament faced by British black people. Not fully accepted, for all the rhetoric, by the established white community, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British, even by the 1980s. This was the poignant outcome of what British black writer Caryl Phillips called, The Final Passage. Phillips came to Britain in the late 1950s himself, and was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion. 

His novel, The Final Passage, is narrated in Standard English, but the speech of the characters is obviously a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going raise your mind. For a West Indian boy like you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself … it’s a college for the West Indian.

The lesson of this college for the West Indian is, as Phillips put it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well.

The new ‘youth’ styles of late-fifties Britain, expressing themselves partly, as almost everything else in the period did, in terms of consumption patterns, also indicated subtle shifts in attitude and outlook: but no-one changed their life-chances by becoming a Teddy Boy or Mod. It can’t be said that adult members of the official culture displayed much sympathy into either of the ‘dreams’, of freedom or recognition, that Ray Gosling gave voice to in the following extracts, first of all from the BBC Programme, It’s My Life, and secondly from his article Dream Boy, which appeared in the New Left Review of May/June 1960:

I remember coming out of the Elephant & Castle, the big theatre at the corner, the Trocadero, and it was after seeing the Bill Haley film, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and we all went down the Old Kent Road, and at the end… all the fire engines were there, and they got their hoses all ready, and it was a… terrible big thing. You felt you were it. Not only because you were young, but you felt the rest of your lives would be, well, ordered by you and not ordered by other people. We felt we could do anything we bloody well wanted, … anything at all, nothing could stop you. You were the guv’ner – you were the king. The world was free – the world was open.

The dreamland is always, like the win on the pools, just around the corner. The man with the big cigar from up West who discovers The Boy, and buys him up, never arrives … The haze that surrounds the life of The Boy is a fog of fear, and not the mist about to rise on a dazzling dawn of success. He lives in Birmingham, not Hollywood, a dead Empire in a sunset world, yet still hopes that somehow, an Eden will pull off the trick, Super Mac will open those golden gates, and here along the M1 the orange trees of California will begin to blossom … And so this boy with everyone and everything against him, plays out his own private drama to the fuggy street, with his god on a chain round his neck, his girl clinging to his arm. Against all of them: in search of the heaven he sees on the glossy page, the screen, and the hoarding.


When the BBC Radio Any Questions panel was asked to comment on the events surrounding the showing of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, Mary Stocks remarked that young people were merely exhibiting a sort of unexpended animal spirits; Lord Boothby, the newspaper proprietor and Conservative politician, expressed the view that he’d rather they all wet off to Cairo and started teddy-boying around there, while Jeremy Thorpe, the future Liberal Party leader, said that Jazz to me comes from the jungle and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion. This is musical Mau-Mau.

Meanwhile, back in ‘darkest’ Notting Hill, not long after the riots, the intrepid reporter, T R Fyvel, was being enlightened by a youth leader about the increased use of ‘the gramophone’. Re-invented as ‘the record-player’, they were far cheaper than ever before, and cheap vinyl records were mass-produced for the first time, adding to the international popularity of performers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Hayley and the Comets, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Although cheap, they were beyond the pockets of most individual teenagers or their families, for whom the TV was still a greater priority, so youth clubs like that run by Fyvel’s informant became a means of ‘putting a roof over the street’ under which young people could share the listening experience:  

Record-players are the thing these days among the boys. You just don’t find a house without one; they’re just about taking the place of the telly, expensive ones, too. Television seems to mean little to the youngsters these days – the only thing they bother to watch is boxing and football – but it’s remarkable how well they know the records. Even little girls at the club will ask if we’ve got the latest hit, “Babyface” or something. Tunes are the one subject where you can be sure of getting them to talk.   


However, for some young Britons, epitomised by Jimmy Porter, the character in Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, it was pretty dreary living in the American age, unless you’re an American, of course. The cold, statistical reality was that the number of British youths in the age-group seventeen to twenty-one convicted for violence against the person had risen to 2,051 in 1958, from 745 in 1954. By 1958 this new development was also apparent to the legal authorities. For example, in London and the Home Counties one magistrate after the other made comment on the fact that the criminal minority among young people had become noticeably much larger and more criminal. This increase in crime statistics was most alarming in the smaller towns and rural areas in the Home Counties. Noting that crime in Berkshire had risen by a third in the course of two years, the Chief Constable of that still largely rural county said, on 9th April 1958, that the average age of those responsible for burglary and other breaking-in offences was under twenty. In neighbouring Buckinghamshire, the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, Lord Birkett remarked:

There are thirty-six prisoners and of these there are no less than twenty-two who are twenty-one and under: among these, one is nineteen, two are eighteen, seven are seventeen, and five are only sixteen. Everyone reviews such a state of affairs with a profound taste of dissatisfaction, in these days when so much is done for the care and protection of the young.

It’s difficult to isolate specific causes of these social trends, but one general cause may have been that there were no good ’causes’ left for most young working-class people to fight for. John Osborne, the controversial playwright, expressed this sense of aimlessness through one of his characters, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger:

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave courses left. If the big bang comes, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old-fashioned grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave-New-nothing- very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.


Another cause of the increase in street-level violence and crime was the social alienation fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats, about which I have written in another post in this series. But, as the title of Osborne’s play reminds us, the fifties did see the rise of the Angry Young Men, and women, and led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  When the first ragged ranks of ‘CND’ swung into view on the first day of their march from London to Aldermaston in Berkshire, one Londoner, observing, commented to a radio reporter:

This must be a bunch of bloody psychotics, trying to extrovert their own psychic difficulties, you know, to neither end nor purpose. It’s like a bunch of tiny dogs yapping at the back door to the big house – it will accomplish sweet nothing.


René Cutforth, the distinguished radio commentator and journalist, however, thought that the marchers might just be the only people left alive. Certainly, the shadow of what Jimmy Porter had called ‘the big bang’ lengthened across the whole face of ‘affluent Britain’ throughout this whole thirty-year period from the late fifties onward, and nothing the bunch of bloody psychotics, including myself, did could raise it an inch. Yet the ‘extra-parliamentary politics’ which so changed the face of political life in the western world in the succeeding decades, and which so powerfully crystallised the popular mood of protest and dissent against the enforced calm of ‘prosperous Britain’, had its beginnings here: it was fired in this highly respectable and law-abiding crucible. 


The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the fifties prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. Only after Macmillan’s 1959 general election victory did pressure really begin to build up for some kind of restriction on immigration to Britain. Opinion polls began to show increasing hostility to the open-door policy. Perhaps just as important, both the Ministry of Labour and the Home Office wanted a change to help deal with the new threat of unemployment. This was a case of the political class being pushed reluctantly into something which offended the notion of their place in the world, the father-figures of a global Commonwealth. One study of immigration points out that what was truly remarkable was the passive acceptance by politicians and bureaucrats of Britain’s transformation into a multicultural society:

Immigration was restricted a full four years after all measures of the public mood indicated clear hostility to a black presence in Britain, and even then it was only done with hesitation. 

However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British citizenship. When, in 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act finally passed into law, it was notably liberal, at least by later standards, assuming the arrival of up to forty thousand legal immigrants a year with the complete right of entry for their dependents.


Even so, it had only gone through after a ferocious parliamentary battle, with the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell making an emotional appeal and passionate attacks on a measure which was still privately opposed by some of the Tory ministers opposite him. One particularly contentious issue was that the Republic of Ireland was allowed a completely open border with Britain, which exists to this day. This may have seemed only practical politics given the huge number of Irish people living and working in Britain, but it offended in two ways. By discriminating in favour of a country which had been neutral in the war with Hitler and declared itself a republic, but against Commonwealth countries which had stood with Britain, it infuriated many British patriots. Secondly, by giving Irish people a better deal than Indians or West Indians it seemed frankly racialist.

Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect. The new law created a quota system which gave preference to skilled workers and those with firm promises of employment. In order to beat it, a huge new influx of people migrated to Britain in 1961, the biggest group from the Caribbean, but also almost fifty thousand from India and Pakistan and twenty thousand Hong Kong Chinese. Fearful of losing the right of free entry, in the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced, the volume of newcomers equalled the total for the previous five years. One historian of immigration puts the paradox well: in the three-year period from 1960 to 1963, despite the intense hostility to immigration, …

… more migrants had arrived in Britain than had disembarked in the whole of the twentieth century up to that point. The country would never be the same again.

Back to the Future: A New Relationship with Europe?

After the Treaty of Rome took effect at the beginning of 1958, French attitudes towards future British membership of the European Economic Community hardened. General de Gaulle, who had felt humiliated by Churchill during the war, returned as President of France, too late to stop the new European system, which he had opposed on the basis of his ‘nation-statism’, from taking shape. He, therefore, determined that it should be dominated by France and made to serve French national interests. Macmillan, always a keen European, became worried. Various British plots intended to limit the six founders and hamper their project had failed. London had tried to rival the new Common Market with a group of the ‘excluded’ countries; Britain, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, calling it the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

‘The Seven’ as they called themselves, were nevertheless smaller in population than ‘the Six’ and were also more geographically scattered and far less united. Roy Jenkins, future Home Secretary and ardent pro-European, described EFTA as a foolish attempt to organise a weak periphery against a strong core. By 1959 Macmillan was worrying that,

… for the first time since the Napoleonic era, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects …

… which might cut Britain out of Europe’s main markets and decisions. In his diaries, he wrote of his alarm at the prospect of a boastful, powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’ – now under French, but bound to come under German control. There was much self-deception about the possible deal that could be struck, which would need to combine the sovereignty of the British Parliament and the interests of farmers throughout the Commonwealth with the protectionist system of the EEC. Macmillan was willing to sacrifice sovereignty if a deal could be reached. He might have seemed as safely steeped in tradition as country houses, but he had nothing like the reverence for the House of Commons felt by Enoch Powell or Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and the Labour Party had seriously underrated Macmillan from the outset of his premiership. In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote of him:

His calm confidence, courtesy and sharpness in debate, his quick-wittedness under pressure, and, above all, his superb professionalism, unnerved and disconcerted his opponents until he secured a quite astonishing psychological superiority in the Commons. Gaitskell never quite succeeded in getting Macmillan’s measure, and his ponderous tactics gave the Prime Minister a series of opportunities which he did not miss…

He imparted confidence to his colleagues and the Party in Parliament, and their confidence spread to the constituencies. It was a remarkable example of how a political revival must start from the top. 

… Macmillan’s refusal to have an ‘inner Cabinet’ of a few intimate friends was a source of strength and not of weakness. Imperturbable, hard-working, approachable, and courageous; he exercised a personal domination over his colleagues not seen in British politics since Churchill’s wartime administration. If it is alleged that Macmillan was singularly lucky after 1958, no man deserved it more. He led the country out of the bitter-black aftermath of Suez, gave them the unflurried leadership for which they craved, and proved himself a worthy successor to Churchill.

In the early sixties, the battle over Britain’s sovereignty, which was to dominate its internal politics for the next sixty years, was postponed because British entry was ruthlessly and publicly blocked. President De Gaulle was due to come to Britain for talks and told the Prime Minister that, rather than visit Downing Street, he would prefer to come to his private home, Birch Grove in Sussex. The two men had worked closely together during the war in North Africa and De Gaulle was grateful to Macmillan personally for his support when, as leader of the Free French, Roosevelt and Churchill had wanted to kick him out of the French government-in-exile which was being formed in advance of liberation. However, De Gaulle had also left North Africa more than ever convinced of the danger to France of a coming Anglo-American alliance which would soon try to dominate the world.

Following a series of domestic disputes at Birch Grove, the two men exchanged blunt views. Macmillan argued that European civilization was threatened from all sides and that if Britain was not allowed to join the Common Market, he would have to review everything, including keeping British troops in Germany. If De Gaulle wanted an “empire of Charlemagne” it would be on its own. The French President replied that he didn’t want Britain to bring in its “great escort” of Commonwealth countries – the Canadians and Australians were no longer Europeans; Indian and African countries had no place in the European system, and he feared Europe being “drowned in the Atlantic”. In short, he simply did not believe that Britain would ditch its old empire; and if it did, he thought it would be a Trojan horse for the Americans.

These seem like formidable objections, points of principle that should have been as a clear warning. Yet the detailed and exhaustive talks about British entry dragged on despite them. Edward Heath made sixty-three visits to Brussels, Paris and other capitals, covering fifty thousand miles as he haggled and argued. By then Macmillan was a fast-fading figure. A natural intriguer who had risen to power on the bloodied back of Eden, he was obsessed by possible political coups against him, and increasingly worried about the state of the economy. He was failing in Europe and looked old when seen alongside the young President Kennedy. Even a master illusionist like Macmillan had to face political reality.

The illusion with the most profound consequences was the economic one. In his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, J K Galbraith intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and would concentrate its energies on the challenges of distribution and redistribution. The class struggle was obsolete, so also were the ideologies which sought to justify it. Politics would no longer involve large general choices but disagreement over more limited and piecemeal issues. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its economic problems. The optimism of the early 1950s was perfectly understandable, but this miracle was built on temporary and fortuitous circumstances.

From 1955, Britain was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced upon the attention of politicians problems they wished to avoid. In 1955, when, as a result of a Government-assisted boom in industrial development, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became over-strained, R. A. Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, deliberately pushed up by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. Butler’s policy was followed by his two successors at the Treasury and only reversed at the onset of the recession in 1958. By then, the policy had eventually succeeded in slowing down the pace of wage increases, one of the major factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took nearly three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes.

One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the Government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector, an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy.  If, by the time he made his famous election speech in 1959, Macmillan’s illusion of continuing affluence was already unsupported by the economic evidence, by the time he gave his interview to the Daily Mail in 1961, the claim that… We’ve got it good: Let’s keep it good was well past its ‘sell-by date’. As Sked and Cook (1979) pointed out in their reflections on the ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’, the Tories had, in fact, done very little in their fiscal policies from 1951-64, to pay attention to Britain’s sluggish economic growth or the problems created by the country’s superficial prosperity:

  … the Government sat back and did nothing in the belief that there was nothing to do, and for most of the time their energy was devoted  to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy … 

Moreover, Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term, and too much money was spent on defence…

With the economic crises of the early 1960s … it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to an end. The scandals of the Macmillan era merely served to reinforce the impression that a watershed had been reached in the country’s history and foreign affairs seemed to reach another lesson…  

In 1962 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain has lost an empire: she has not yet found a role. The failure to rethink her world role was as evident in diplomacy as in economics. Macmillan foresaw and expedited the final liquidation of Empire, but he had few ideas about what to put in its place. The special relationship with the United States was to remain the cornerstone of British policy. But without the Empire, the relationship was bound to become one of master and servant. These illusions blinded Macmillan to the far-reaching changes occurring in Europe.

After a further unpopular budget in the spring of 1962, Macmillan drafted an alternative policy based on more planning and decided to sack his Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd. The news was leaked to the papers, and over a brutal and panicky twenty-four hours in July, Macmillan expanded the circle of his sackings more widely, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Macmillan called in and dismissed a third of his cabinet ministers from their jobs without notice. Macmillan’s own official biographer described it as an act of carnage unprecedented in British political history. However, compared with more recent cabinet ‘re-shuffles’ which happen with far greater frequency, many of those sacked then deserved to lose their jobs.

In November, Macmillan returned to his arguments with De Gaulle. This time, he went to France, to the grand chateau of Rambouillet, south of Paris, a venue used by French Presidents for summits as well as for holidays. After a round of pheasant-shooting, de Gaulle expressed his objections to British EEC membership even more aggressively. If Britain wanted to choose Europe, it would have to cut its special ties with the United States. At one point, Macmillan broke down in tears of frustration at the General’s intransigence, leading de Gaulle to comment later to his cabinet:

This poor man , to whom I had nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten that I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Edith Piaf song, “Ne pleurez pas, milord”.

Cruel or not, it was a significant moment for Macmillan, for the Tories and for Britain. When, a few months later, in early 1963, De Gaulle’s “Non” was abruptly announced in a Paris press conference, it caused huge offence in Britain. A visit to Paris by Princess Margaret was cancelled. At the England-France rugby international at Twickenham a few days later, England won six-five. The captain of the English team had assured Ted Heath, the failed negotiator, that he had had a word with the team before the game, telling them…

… this was an all-important game. Everyone knew what I meant and produced the necessary …

Macmillan himself bitterly recorded in his diary that the French always betray you in the end. 



Theo Baker (ed., 1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds., 1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Educational.

Asa Briggs, Joanna Bourke et. al. (eds., 2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1986), The Story of English. Harmonsworth: Penguin Books.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.


Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Six   Leave a comment

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Part Six – Zwingli, Luther and the Anabaptists, 1525-35:

The Lutheran Reformation had been accompanied by certain phenomena which, though they appalled Luther and his associates, were so natural as to appear in retrospect. As against the authority of the Church of Rome, the Reformers appealed to the text of the Bible. But once men were able to read the Bible for themselves, in their own language, they began to interpret it for themselves; their own interpretations did not always accord with those of the Reformers. Wherever Luther’s influence extended the priest lost much of his traditional prestige as a mediator between the layman and God. Once the layman could stand face to face with God and rely for guidance on his individual conscience, it was inevitable that some laymen should claim divine promptings which ran as much counter to the new as to the old orthodoxy.

For many centuries, the Church of Rome, whatever its failings, had been fulfilling a very important normative function in European society. Luther’s onslaught, precisely because it was so effective, seriously disturbed that function. As a result, it produced, along with a sense of liberation, a sense of disorientation which was just as widespread. Moreover, the Lutheran Reformation could not itself master all the anxieties which it had released in the population. Partly because of the content of his doctrine of salvation, partly because of his alliance with the established secular powers, Luther failed to hold the allegiance of great multitudes of the common people. Amongst the perturbed, disoriented masses there grew up, in opposition to both Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism, the movement to which its opponents gave the name of Anabaptism – in many ways a successor to the medieval sects, but a far larger movement which spread over most of west and central Europe.


By 1525, Zurich was the seat of a new variety of the Reformation which was to be set over against that of Wittenberg and characterised as the Reformed. The leader was Huldreich Zwingli who had received a Humanist training as a Catholic priest, and on the appearance of Erasmus’ New Testament he committed the epistles to memory in Greek and affirmed in consequence that Luther had been able to teach him nothing about the understanding of Paul. But what Zwingli selected for emphasis in Paul was the text: The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life, which he coupled with a Johannine verse; The flesh profiteth nothing. By ‘flesh’ Zwingli meant the body in the Platonic sense, whereas Luther took it to mean, in the Hebraic sense, the ‘evil heart’. Zwingli, therefore, made a characteristic deduction from his disparagement of the body that art and music were inappropriate as the ‘handmaids of religion’ though he himself was an accomplished musician.


His next logical step was to deny the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharistic, reducing the sacrament to a symbolic commemoration of the crucifixion, just as the Passover meal had been a memorial to the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt. Jesus’ words, this is my body… this is the new testament in my blood… could just as easily be translated as this signifies… Luther sensed at once the affinity between these views and those of Carlstadt whom he had effectively banished from Wittenberg for his support of iconoclasm. Luther also recognised a similarity with the views of Müntzer in Zwingli, in particular his willingness to turn to politics and even to countenance the use of the sword in the name of the faith. Zwingli was a Swiss patriot, and in translating the twenty-third psalm he rendered the second verse as… He maketh me to lie down in an Alpine meadow. But there he could find no still waters, but only fast-flowing streams. The evangelical issue threatened to disrupt his beloved confederation, for the Catholics turned to the traditional enemy, the House of Habsburg. Ferdinand of Austria was instrumental in the calling of the assembly of Baden to discuss Zwingli’s theory of the sacrament.

This was the Swiss reformer’s Diet of Worms and he became convinced that the gospel could only be saved in Switzerland and the Confederation if the Catholic League with Austria were countered by an evangelical league with the German Lutherans, ready if need be to use the sword. The very notion of a military alliance for the defence of the gospel reminded Luther of Thomas Müntzer. Not only that, but the ‘home’ sphere of Luther’s activity was constantly being encroached upon. The Catholics, both clerical and lay, were determined to launch their counter-reformation. The Swiss, the south German Protestant cities and the Anabaptists had all developed divergent forms of the reformed faith. Even Wittenberg had experienced its radical moments and might not be free from fresh infiltrations from the sectaries. But Luther was more determined than ever to carve out enough space in between for his territorial church, working with the ‘godly princes’. He made a clear-cut division between the concerns and responsibilities of the church and state.

The radicals, sometimes called ‘enthusiasts’, wanted to carry out a complete spiritual transformation of the church, and expected Christians to live by the standards and teachings of Scripture. Their reform programme was, however, more far-reaching than most people were prepared to accept, especially in the rural areas where the activism of Müntzer and the peasants had led to such indescribable misery following the massacres, mass executions,  destruction of farms, agricultural implements and livestock. However, Anabaptism was not a homogeneous movement and was never centrally organised. There existed some forty independent sects of Anabaptists, each grouped around a leader who claimed to be a divinely inspired prophet or apostle, following in the apostolic succession. These sects, often clandestine, constantly threatened with extermination, scattered throughout the German-speaking lands, developed along the separate lines which the various leaders set. Nevertheless, certain tendencies were common to the movement as a whole.

In some parts of the Anabaptist movement which spread far and wide during the years following the Peasants’ War, Müntzer’s memory was venerated, even though he had never called himself an Anabaptist. Other parts of rejected his legacy. Again, this was because they did not, at first, emerge as a single, coherent organisation, but as a loose grouping of movements. All of these rejected infant baptism and practised the baptism of adults upon confession of faith. They themselves never accepted the label ‘Anabaptist’ (meaning ‘rebaptizer’), a term of reproach coined by their opponents, since they objected to the implication that the ceremonial sprinkling which they had received as infants had in fact been a valid baptism. They denied that their baptism of believing adults was arrogant and superfluous. They also soon discovered that the term gave the authorities a legal pretext for persecuting and executing them, based on Roman laws harking back to the fifth century.

For the ‘Anabaptists’ themselves, however, baptism was not the fundamental issue involved in their sectarianism. More basic was their growing conviction about the role the civil government should play in the reformation of the church. Late in 1523 intense debate broke out in Zürich.  At that time it became clear that the city council was unwilling to bring about the religious changes that the theologians believed were called for by Scripture. Zwingli believed that the reformers should wait and attempt to persuade the authorities by preaching. The ‘Anabaptists’ believed that the community of Christians, the corpus Christianum, should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and initiate Scripture-based reforms regardless of the views of the council. Despite continuing efforts to discuss the matters in dispute between the reformists and the radicals – the mass, baptism and tithes – the gap between the two parties widened. Finally, on 21 January 1525, came a complete rupture. On that day the city council forbade the radicals to assemble or disseminate their views. That evening, in the neighbouring village of Zollikon, praying that God would grant them to do his divine will and that he would show them mercy, the radicals met, baptized each other, and so became the first free church of modern times.

Their point of departure from the ‘mainstream’ reformers was another aspect of Erasmus’ programme and a point which was also important to Zwingli himself. This was the restoration of primitive Christianity, which they took to mean the adoption of the Sermon on the Mount as a literal code for all Christians, who should renounce oaths, the use of the sword whether in war or civil government, private possessions, bodily adornment, revelling and drunkenness. Pacifism, religious communitarianism, simplicity and temperance marked their communities. The church should consist only of the twice-born, committed to the covenant of discipline. Here again was the concept of ‘the Elect’, discernible by the two tests of spiritual experience and moral achievement. The Church should not rest on the baptism administered in infancy, but on regeneration, symbolised by baptism during or after ‘the years of discretion’. Every member should be a priest, a minister, and a missionary prepared to embark on evangelistic tours. Such a Church, though seeking to convert the world and not to exclude anyone from hearing the gospel message, could never embrace the unconverted community, however. Since the State comprised all the inhabitants, the Church would need to separate itself from its control and free itself from all magisterial constraint.

Zwingli was aghast to see the medieval unity of Church and State shattered and in panic invoked the arm of the state. In 1525 the Anabaptists in Zürich were subjected to the death penalty. Luther was not yet ready for such savage expedients, but he too was appalled by what to him appeared to be a reversion to the monastic attempt to win salvation by a higher righteousness. The leaving of families for missionary expeditions was in his eyes a sheer desertion of domestic responsibilities, and the repudiation of the sword prompted him to a new vindication of the divine calling alike of the magistrate and the soldier. But he was very much conflicted over the whole matter of the executions. In 1527, he wrote:

 It is not right, and I am deeply troubled that the poor people are so pitifully put to death, burned, and cruelly slain. Let everyone believe what he likes. If he is wrong, he will have punishment enough in hell fire. Unless there is sedition, one should oppose them with Scripture and God’s Word. With fire you won’t get anywhere. 


This did not mean, however, that Luther considered one faith as good as another. Most emphatically he believed that the wrong faith would entail hell-fire; although the true faith could not be created by coercion, it could be relieved of impediments. The magistrate should certainly not suffer the faith to be blasphemed. Unlike the ‘mainstream’ reformers, the Anabaptists were not committed to the notion that ‘Christendom’ was Christian. From the beginning, they saw themselves as missionaries to people of lukewarm piety, only partly obedient to the gospel. The Anabaptists systematically divided Europe into sectors for evangelistic outreach and sent missionaries out into them in twos and threes. Many people were bewildered by their message; others pulled back when the cost of Anabaptist discipleship became clear. But others heard them gladly.


In general, the Anabaptists attached relatively little importance either to theological speculations or formal religious observances. In place of such practices as daily church-going, they set a meticulous, literal observance of the precepts that they thought they found in the New Testament. In place of theology, they cultivated the Bible, which they were apt to interpret in the light of the direct inspirations which they believed they received from God. Their values were primarily ethical; for them, religion was above all a matter of active brotherly love. Their communities were modelled on what they supposed to have been the practice of the early Church and were intended to realise the ethical ideal propounded by Christ.

The diverse backgrounds of their leaders and the absence of any ecclesiastical authority to control them were enough to ensure diversity of belief and practice. They did, however, attempt to agree upon a common basis. In 1527 at Schleitheim, on today’s Swiss-German border near Schaffhausen, the Anabaptists called the first ‘synod’ of the Protestant Reformation. The leading figure at this meeting was the former Benedictine prior, Michael Sattler, who, four months later, was burned at the stake in nearby Rottenberg-am-Neckar. The ‘Brotherly Union’ adopted at Schleitheim was to be a highly significant document. During the next decade, most Anabaptists in all parts of Europe came to agree with the beliefs which it laid down.

It was in their social Attitudes that the Anabaptist were most distinct. These sectarians tended to be uneasy about private property and to accept community of goods as an ideal. If in most of the groups little attempt was made to introduce common ownership, Anabaptists certainly did take seriously the obligations of charitable dealing and generous mutual aid. On the other hand Anabaptist communities, facing continual persecution, often showed a marked exclusiveness. Within each group, there was great solidarity, but the attitude towards society at large tended to be one of rejection.

In particular, Anabaptists regarded the state with suspicion, as an institution which, though no doubt necessary for the unrighteous, was unnecessary for true Christians. Though they were willing to comply with many of the state’s demands, they refused to let it invade the realm of faith and conscience; in general, they preferred to minimise their dealings with it. Most Anabaptists refused to hold an official position in the state, or to invoke the authority of the state against a fellow Anabaptist, or to take up arms on behalf of the state. The attitude towards private persons who were not Anabaptists was equally aloof; Anabaptists commonly avoided all social intercourse outside their own community. Many regarded themselves as the only Elect and their communities as being alone under the immediate guidance of God; small islands of righteousness in an ocean of iniquity. But the history of the movement was punctuated by schisms over this obsession with exclusive election, which some were more obsessed with than others.

The movement spread from Switzerland into Germany. Mysticism, late-medieval asceticism and the disillusionment which followed the Peasants’ War of 1525 had prepared the way for them. Most Anabaptists were peaceful folk who in practice were quite willing, except in matters of conscience and belief, to respect the authority of the state. Certainly, the majority had no thought of social revolution. But the rank-and-file were recruited almost entirely from the ranks of peasants and artisans; after the Peasants’ War, the authorities were nervous of these classes. Even the most peaceful Anabaptists were therefore ferociously persecuted and many thousands of them were killed.

By 1527, the German Reformers and their princely allies had determined to use all necessary means to root out Anabaptism. They were joined in this determination by the Catholic authorities. To Protestants and Catholics alike, the Anabaptists seemed not only to be dangerous heretics; they also seemed to threaten the religious and social stability of Christian Europe. Their growth constituted a very real problem to the territorial church since, despite the decree of death visited upon them at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 with the concurrence of the Evangelicals, the fearlessness and saintliness of the martyrs had enlisted converts to the point of threatening to depopulate the established churches. Philip of Hesse observed more improvement of life among the sectaries than among the Lutherans, and a Lutheran pastor who wrote against the Anabaptists testified that they went in among the poor, appeared very lowly, prayed much, read from the Gospel, talked especially about the outward life and good works, about helping the neighbour, giving and lending, holding goods in common, exercising authority over none, and living with all as brothers and sisters. Such were the people executed by Elector John in Saxony. In the carnage of the next quarter-century, thousands of Anabaptists were put to death; thousands more saved their skins by recanting.


But the blood of the martyrs proved again to be the seed of the church. This persecution, in the end, created the very danger it was intended to forestall. It was not only that the Anabaptists were confirmed in their hostility to the state and the established order, but that they also interpreted their sufferings in apocalyptic terms, as the last great onslaught of Satan and Antichrist against the Saints, as those ‘messianic woes’ which were to usher in the Millennium. Many Anabaptists became obsessed with imaginings of a day of reckoning when they themselves would arise to overthrow the mighty and, under a Christ who had returned at last, establish a Millennium on earth. The situation within Anabaptism now resembled that which had existed within the heretical movements of previous centuries, like the Waldesians. The bulk of the Anabaptists continued in their tradition of peaceful and austere dissent. But alongside it there was growing up in Anabaptism of another kind, in which the equally ancient tradition of militant millenarianism was finding a new expression.

The first propagandist of this new Anabaptism was an itinerant bookbinder called Hans Hut, a former follower and disciple of Müntzer and like him a native of Thuringia. He claimed to be a prophet sent by God to announce that at Whitsuntide, 1528, Christ would return to earth and place the two-edged sword of justice in the hands of the rebaptised Saints. They would then hold judgement on the priests and pastors for their false teaching and, above all, on the great princes of the earth for their persecutions; kings and nobles would be cast into chains. Finally, Christ was to establish a Millennium which, it seems, was to be characterised by free love and community of goods. Hut was captured in 1527 and imprisoned at Augsburg, where he died or was killed in prison; but not before he had made some converts in the towns of southern Germany. In the professions of faith of Hut’s followers can be recognised the doctrines of John Ball and the radical Táborites, repeated almost verbatim:

Christ will give the sword and revenge to them, the Anabaptists, to punish all sins, stamp out all governments, communise all property and slay those who do not permit themselves to be rebaptised… The government does not treat poor people properly and burdens them too heavily. When God gives them revenge they want to punish and wipe out the evil…

Hut himself expected all this to happen only when ‘Christ came on the clouds’, but his disciples were not so patient: at Esslingen on the Neckar in 1528, Anabaptists seem to have planned to set up the Kingdom of God by force of arms. Among these militant millenarians, the ideal of communal ownership clearly possessed a revolutionary significance; it was no doubt with some justification that the town authorities at Nürnberg warned those at Ulm that the Anabaptists were aiming at overthrowing the established order and abolishing private property. It is true that in south Germany revolutionary Anabaptism remained a small and ineffective force and that it was crushed out of existence by 1530. But by this time, Anabaptist-like groups also sprang up spontaneously in various parts of Europe. By the late 1520s, Anabaptism was to be found as far afield as Holland and Moravia, the Tyrol and Mecklenburg.

The early missionary who took the message along the Alps was Jörg Cajacob (‘Blaurock’), who had been the first adult to be baptized in Zürich in 1525. When the Tyrolean Catholic authorities began to persecute them intensely, many of the Anabaptists found refuge on the lands of some exceptionally tolerant princes in Moravia. There they founded a very long-standing form of an economic community called the Bruderhof. In part, they aimed to follow the pattern of the early apostolic community, but they sought community for practical reasons as well, as a means of group survival under persecution. Their communities attempted to show that brotherhood comes before self in the kingdom of God. Consolidated under the leadership of Jakob Hutter (died 1536), these groups came to be known as ‘Hutterites’.


In 1530 Luther advanced the view that the two offences of sedition and blasphemy should be penalised even with death. The emphasis was thus shifted from holding incorrect beliefs, or heresy in itself, to its public manifestation by word and deed. This was, however, no great gain for liberty, because Luther construed mere abstention from public office and military service as sedition and a rejection of an article from the Apostles’ Creed as blasphemy. In a memorandum of 1531, composed by Melanchthon and signed by Luther, a rejection of the ministerial office was described as insufferable blasphemy and the disintegration of the Church as sedition against the ecclesiastical order. In order to understand Luther’s position, we need to bear in mind that Anabaptism was not in every instance socially innocuous. The year in which he signed a memorandum counselling death even for the peaceful Anabaptists was also the year in which a group of them ceased to be peaceful. Goaded by ten years of persecution, in 1534 bands of fanatics in the extreme north-west of Germany claimed to have received a revelation from the Lord that they should no more be sheep for the slaughter but rather as the angel with the sickle to reap the harvest.

The results of this so-called ‘revelation’ gripped the attention of the whole of Europe. North-west Germany at the beginning of the sixteenth century consisted mainly of a number of petty ecclesiastical states, each with a prince-bishop as its sovereign. Usually, such a state was torn by fierce social conflicts. The government of the state was in the hands of the prince-bishop and of the chapter of the diocese, which elected him and to a large extent controlled his policy. The members of the chapter were recruited solely from the local aristocracy – a coat of arms with at least four quarterings was commonly an indispensable qualification – and they often chose one of their own number as bishop. This group of aristocratic clerics was not subject any control by a higher authority; in the regional diet they were powerfully represented and could always rely on the support of the knighthood. They, therefore, tended to govern solely in the interests of their own class and of the clergy in the diocese. In an ecclesiastical state, the clergy were not only very numerous but also highly privileged.

In the bishopric of Münster, there were some thirty ecclesiastical centres, including four monasteries, seven convents, ten churches, a cathedral and, of course, the chapter itself. Members of the chapter enjoyed rich prebends and canonries. The monks were permitted to carry on secular trades and handicrafts. Above all, the clergy as a whole were almost entirely exempt from taxation. But the power of the clerical-aristocratic stratum in an ecclesiastical state seldom extended very effectively to the capital city. In these states as elsewhere, the development of commerce and a money economy had given an even greater importance to the towns. The state governments were in constant need of money and by the usual method of bargaining over taxes the towns had gradually won concessions and privileges for themselves. This was particularly true in the bishopric of Münster, the largest and most important of the ecclesiastical states. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, the town had enjoyed a large measure of self-government and the power of the bishop, who seldom resided there, had been much restricted.

In Münster in the 1530s, the bishop was simply a secular lord who had not even been ordained. Moreover, the taxes imposed by the prince-bishop were commonly heavy and the whole burden fell on the laity, who benefited least from the administration. In addition, as citizens of an ecclesiastical state, they had to pay vast sums to the Roman Curia each time a new bishop was elected; Münster did so three times between 1498 and 1522. It is not surprising, therefore, that the immunity of the clergy from taxation was bitterly resented and that tradesmen and artisans also objected to the competition they faced from monks engaged in commerce and industry. The monks had no families to maintain, no military service to perform or provide, and no guild regulations to observe.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the resistance to the power of the bishop and clergy came, not from the town council, which had become a staid and relatively conservative body, but from the guilds. This was certainly the case in Münster. As the town, in the course of the fifteenth century, became an important commercial centre and a member of the Hanseatic League, the guilds obtained great political power. Organised in one great guild, which in the sixteenth-century contained no less than sixteen separate guilds, they could at a suitable opportunity rouse and lead the whole population against the clergy. One such opportunity was offered by the Peasants’ War. It is a striking fact that when the revolutionary excitement which spread from the south of Germany reached the north-west, it was neither the peasantry nor the towns in the secular states which rose in revolt, but solely the capitals of the states: Osnabrück,  Utrecht, Paderborn and Münster. In Münster, the guilds led an attack on a monastery which had entered into commercial competition with them and they also demanded a general restriction on the privileges of the clergy; the chapter was forced to make very considerable concessions.

On that occasion, the triumph of the guilds was short-lived, at Münster and in all its sister towns. As soon as the princes had dealt with peasants in the south, the chapters in the northern bishoprics were able to regain whatever powers they had conceded. They crushed every attempt at reform and did all they could to humiliate the rebellious towns. By 1530 the old system of government was re-established in all the ecclesiastical states. Nevertheless, the townsmen now resented the ascendancy of the clergy and nobles even more than they had done before; they had felt their own strength and now simply waited for another occasion on which to deploy it more successfully. In 1529 an outbreak of Black Death devastated Westphalia and at the same time, the crops failed. Finally, in 1530 an extraordinary tax was levied to finance resistance to the Turkish invasion of the eastern territories of the Empire. As a result of these factors, the distress in north-west Germany was exceptional, and it was therefore only to be expected that in one or other of the ecclesiastical states there would be outbreaks of serious disorder.  When in 1530 the Bishop of Münster tried to sell his bishopric to the Bishop of Paderborn and Osnabrück, these disorders did indeed break out.

In 1531 an eloquent young chaplain called Bernt Rothmann, a blacksmith’s son whose remarkable gifts had won him a university education, began to attract vast congregations in Münster. Very soon he became a Lutheran and put himself at the head of a movement, dating back to 1525, which aimed to bring the town into the Lutheran fold. He found support in the guilds and a patrician ally in a rich cloth-merchant named Bernt Knipperdollinck. The movement was further facilitated by the resignation of one bishop followed by the death of his successor. In 1532 the guilds, supported by the populace, became once more masters of the town, able to force the Council to install Lutheran preachers in all churches. The new bishop was unable to make the town abandon its faith and early in 1533, he recognised Münster as officially Lutheran. It did not remain so for long, however, as in the neighbouring Duchy of Julich-Cleves Anabaptist preachers had for some years enjoyed freedom of propaganda such as existed hardly anywhere else. But in 1532 they were expelled and a number of them sought refuge in Münster.

In the course of 1533, more Anabaptists arrived from the Netherlands, followers of Melchior Hoffman, a celebrated visionary who had wandered through Europe as an itinerant preacher of the Second Coming and the  Millennium. He had joined the Anabaptist movement in 1529 and within a year a new wing of the movement, profoundly influenced by his ideas, had developed in the northern provinces of the Netherlands. According to Hoffman, the Millennium was to begin, after a period of ‘messianic woes’ and many signs and wonders, in the year 1533. In that year, the millenarian fantasy which Hoffman’s supporters brought with them into Münster rapidly turned into a mass obsession, dominating the whole life of the poorer classes in the town.  Meanwhile, Rothmann had abandoned Lutheranism and became an Anabaptist himself, breathing new life into the movement’s preaching. By October 1533 he was holding up the supposed communitarianism of the primitive Church as the ideal for a truly Christian community. In sermons and tracts, he declared that the true believers ought to model their lives minutely on the lives of the first Christians and that this involved holding all things in common.


Albrecht Dürer’s powerful woodcut, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death is on a bony horse, Want flourishes scales, Sickness waves his sword and War draws his bow. The people are trodden underfoot.

Expecting the Millennium, the Anabaptists, many of them from Holland, took over Münster and there inaugurated the reign of the saints, of which Thomas Müntzer had dreamed. The more prosperous burghers of the town were much perturbed. If most of them had rejoiced at the defeat of the Bishop and Chapter and the victory of the Lutheran cause, a powerful Anabaptist movement supported by a mass of unemployed and desperate foreigners held obvious and grave dangers for all of them alike. In the face of this threat, Lutherans and Roman Catholics closed ranks and came together to suppress this reign of the new Daniels and Elijahs. Towards the end of the year the Council several times tried to silence or expel Rothmann but, secure in the devotion of his followers, he was always able to defy it. The other Anabaptist preachers were indeed expelled and replaced by Lutherans, but before long they returned and the Lutherans were hounded from the churches. Week by week excitement in the town increased until, in the first days of 1534, the men arrived who were to direct it towards a specific aim.

Melchior Hoffman, who believed that the Millennium would dawn in Strasbourg, had been arrested in that town and imprisoned inside a cage in a tower; and there he spent the rest of his days. The prophetic mantle descended on a Dutch Anabaptist, the baker Jan Matthys of Haarlem. This change of leadership changed the whole tone of the movement. Hoffmann was a man of peace who had taught his followers to await the coming of the Millennium in quiet confidence, avoiding all violence. Matthys, however, was a revolutionary leader who taught that the righteous must themselves take up the sword and actively prepare the way for the Millennium by wielding it against the unrighteous. It had, he proclaimed, been revealed to him that he and his followers were called to cleanse the earth of the ungodly. In the first days of 1534, two of his Dutch apostles reached Münster, where their arrival at once produced a contagion of enthusiasm. Rothmann and the other Anabaptist preachers were rebaptised, followed by many nuns and well-to-do laywomen and then by a large part of the population. It is said that within a week the number of baptisms reached 1,400.

The first apostles moved on, but they were then replaced by two more, who were taken at first to be Enoch and Elijah, the prophets who according to traditional eschatology were to return to earth as the two ‘witnesses’ against Antichrist and whose appearance was to herald the Second Coming. One of the newcomers was Jan Bockelson, better known as John of Leyden, a young man of twenty-five who had been baptised by Matthys only a couple of months before. It was he who was to give to Anabaptism in Münster a fierce militancy such as it possessed nowhere else and who was to stimulate an outbreak or revolutionary millenarianism which startled the whole of Europe.


During February 1534, the power of the Anabaptists in Münster increased rapidly. Bockelson at once established good relations with the leader of the guilds and patron of the Anabaptists, the cloth-merchant Knipperdollinck. On 8 February these two men ran wildly through the streets, summoning all the people to repent of their sins. It was in this millenarian atmosphere that they made their first armed rising, occupying the town hall and the market-place. They were still only a minority and could have been defeated if the Lutheran majority had been willing to use the armed force at its disposal. But the Anabaptists had allies on the Council, and the outcome of the rising was official recognition of the principle of liberty of conscience. The number of Anabaptist immigrants grew even beyond that of Lutheran emigrants, so that in the annual election for the Town Council on 23 February an overwhelmingly Anabaptist body was elected. In the following days monasteries and churches were looted and in a nocturnal orgy of iconoclasm the sculptures, paintings and books of the cathedral were destroyed. Meanwhile, Jan Matthys himself had arrived, and together with Bockelson he quickly dominated the town. On 27 February armed bands rushed through the streets driving multitudes of the ‘godless’ from the town in the bitter cold, without spare clothes and possessions. Those who remained were rebaptised in the market-place in a ceremony which lasted for three days. After that, it became a capital offence to be unbaptised and by 3 March there were no ‘misbelievers’ left in the town.

When the bishop massed his troops to besiege the city, the Anabaptists defended themselves by arms. As the siege progressed, even more, extreme leaders gained control. These Münsterite leaders, besides claiming prophetic authority to receive new revelations, also claimed that the Old Testament ethics still applied, and so felt justified in reintroducing polygamy. They even crowned a ‘King David’ of ‘the New Jerusalem’ in Bockelson. Terror, long a familiar feature of life in the New Jerusalem, was intensified during Bockelson’s reign. Within a few days of his proclamation, it was announced that in future all those who persisted in sinning against the truth must be brought before the king and sentenced to death. A couple of days later, executions began. The first victims were women: one was beheaded for denying her husband his marital rights, and another for bigamy, since the practice of polygamy was a male prerogative, and a third for insulting a preacher and mocking his doctrine. As the Bishop intensified his efforts to reduce the town through a blockade which began in January 1535, Bockelson declared that any man plotting to leave the town, or who was found to have helped someone else to leave was to be at once beheaded, as was anyone who was overheard criticising the ‘king’ or his policy.


The Anabaptists of Münster under siege. The combined forces of the Catholics and Lutherans were intent on destroying the Anabaptists’ threat to the established order. The defenders were butchered after the final assault; their leaders cruelly tortured to death.

Rather than surrender the town, Bockelson would doubtless have let the entire population starve to death; but in the event, the siege was brought abruptly to a close. Two men escaped by night from the town and indicated to the besiegers certain weak spots in the defences. On the night of 24 June 1535, they launched a surprise attack and penetrated into the town. After some hours of desperate fighting the last two or three hundred surviving Anabaptists accepted an offer of safe-conduct, laid down their arms and dispersed to their homes. , only to be killed one by one and almost to the last man, in a massacre lasting several days. All the leaders of Anabaptism in the town perished. Rothmann is believed to have died fighting, and Bockleson, at the Bishop’s command was for some time led about on a chain and exhibited like a performing bear. In January 1536 he was brought back to Münster, where he, Knipperdollinck and another leading Anabaptist were publicly tortured to death with red-hot irons. After the execution the three bodies were suspended from a church-tower in the town centre, in cages which are still seen there today.

For centuries, churches and governments have exploited the excesses of these months prior to the fall of the city in June 1535 to make ‘Anabaptism’ an all-embracing byword for fanaticism and anarchy. Certainly, at the time, the whole episode did incalculable harm to the reputation of the Anabaptists, who before and after it were peaceable folk. This one episode of rebellion engendered the fear that sheep’s clothing concealed wolves who might better be dealt with before they threw off the disguise. In Luther’s case, it should be further remembered that the leading Anabaptist in Thuringia was Melchior Rink, who had been with Thomas Müntzer at the Battle of Frankenhausen in 1525. Yet when all these attenuating circumstances are taken into account, it is still difficult to ignore the fact that Melanchthon’s memorandum justified the eradication of the peaceful, not because they were clandestine revolutionaries, but on the grounds that even a peaceful renunciation of the state still constituted sedition.


Besides this view of the role of the State, both Luther and Melanchthon were convinced that the truth of God could be known and that being known it lays supreme obligations on mankind to preserve it. To them, the Anabaptists were corrupters of souls. Luther’s leniency toward them is more deserving of comment than is his ultimate severity. He was consistent to the end in insisting that faith could not be forced; that in private a man might believe what he would; that only open revolt or public attacks on ordained preachers should be penalised; and that only sedition and blasphemy, rather than heresy, should be subject to constraint.

It is also striking that many of the major principles of the Anabaptists of Münster – the linking of church and state; the validity of Old Testament social patterns; the right of Christians to take up arms – were more typical of the ‘official’ churches of the time than they were of the Anabaptists in general. In its original, pacific form, Anabaptism has survived to the present day in communities such as the Mennonites, the Hutterite Brethren and, of course, the Baptists themselves. But militant, millenarian Anabaptism rapidly declined as a movement and though there was an attempt to revive it in Westphalia thirty years later, the band of terrorists which gathered around a cobbler-‘messiah’ called Jan Willemsen were eventually captured and executed.

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Four   Leave a comment


Part Four – Wittenbergers and Allstedters, 1521-25:

While Martin Luther was hidden away from his enemies in the Wartburg Castle in the second half of 1521, the reformation at Wittenberg moved with disconcerting velocity, and he was kept abreast of these events in so far as tardy communications and the conditions of his concealment permitted. His opinion was continually sought, and his advice directed the developments, even though he was not in a position to take the initiative. Leadership fell to Philip Melanchthon, Professor of Greek; to Carlstadt, Professor and Archdeacon at the Castle Church; and to Gabriel Zwilling, a monk of Luther’s own order, the Augustinians. Under their leadership, the reformation for the first time assumed a form distinctly recognisable to the common man.


Nothing which Luther had done to date had made any difference to the lives of ordinary folk, except for the initial attack on indulgences, but even that had not as yet proved especially effective. Luther was not able to say while at the Wartburg that indulgences had been discontinued in his own parish of Wittenberg. But during his absence in 1521 and 1522 one innovation had rapidly followed another. Priests and monks married; monks and nuns even married each other. The tonsured allowed their hair to grow. The wine in the mass was given to the laity, and they were suffered to take the elements into their own hands. Priests celebrated the sacrament without vestments, in plain clothes. Portions of the liturgy were recited in German and masses for the dead were discontinued. Vigils ceased, vespers were altered, images were smashed. Meat was eaten on fast days and endowments were withdrawn by patrons. The enrollment in the university declined because students were no longer supported by ecclesiastical stipends. The common people began to realise that their daily religious life was changing and that the Reformation meant something to them.

When three priests married in 1521 and were arrested by Albert of Mainz, Luther sent him a protest. Albert consulted the University of Wittenberg and Carlstadt answered with a work on celibacy, in which he went so far as to assert not only that a priest might marry but that he must, and should also be the father of a family. For obligatory celibacy, he would substitute obligatory matrimony and paternity. Under the fiery preaching of Gabriel Zwilling, the Augustinian monks began to leave the cloister. On 30 November, fifteen withdrew. The prior reported to the Elector:

It is being preached that no monk can be saved in a cowl, that cloisters are in the grip of the Devil, that monks should be expelled and cloisters demolished. Whether such teaching is grounded in the gospel I greatly doubt.

The Augustinians at Wittenberg held a meeting in January 1522 at which they decided, instead of disciplining the ‘apostate’ monks, that thereafter any member of the order should be free to stay or to leave as he might please. Next came the reform of the liturgy, which touched the common man more intimately because it altered his daily devotions. Here, Luther had already laid the groundwork for the most significant changes. His principle was that the mass was not a sacrifice but a thanksgiving to God and a communion of believers.

With a beard sufficient to deceive his own mother, the exile from the Wartburg appeared on the streets of Wittenberg on the fourth of December, 1521. He was immensely pleased with all that his colleagues had lately introduced by way of reform, but also irate because his recent tracts, which he had sent to Spalatin in manuscript, had not yet been published. These were On Monastic Vows, On the Abolition of Private Masses, and A Blast against the Archbishop of Mainz. At this moment, Luther was distinctly in favour of speeding up the reformation. But not by violence.

… Antichrist, as Daniel said, is to be broken without the hand of man. Violence will only make him stronger. Preach, pray, but do not fight. Not that all constraint is ruled out, but it must be exercised by the constituted authorities.


The problem was, however, that the constituted authority was inhibitive of the reformation. Elector Frederick issued an order on 19 December in which he stated that while discussion might continue, there could be no changes to the mass until unanimity was reached. But Carlstadt chose to defy the Elector by inviting the populace to receive communion in both kinds at the New Year’s mass. When the Elector interposed, Carlstadt then offered the same communion for Christmas, issuing the public invitation only on the previous night. The populace was stirred up and Christmas Eve was celebrated by rioting. On Christmas Day, Carlstadt celebrated mass, passing from Latin to German in the liturgy. For the first time in their lives, the assembled people heard the words in their own tongue, This is the cup of my blood of the new and eternal testament, spirit and secret of the faith, shed for you to the remission of sins. 


Under Carlstadt’s leading, the town council of Wittenberg issued the first city ordinance of the reformation. Mass was to be conducted as he had done it. Luther’s ideas on social reform were implemented. Begging was forbidden. Those genuinely poor should be maintained from a common fund. Prostitutes were to be banned. Then came quite a new point: images should be removed from the churches. During the preceding weeks, Zwilling had led an iconoclastic riot, overturning altars and smashing images and pictures of the saints. The author of this idea was Carlstadt himself, who took his stand squarely on the Scriptures of the old testament, especially the commandment not to make graven images, which reinforced his own experience of being distracted from spiritual worship by such images, especially those of Christ on the cross, which reminded the worshipper of the physical pain of his Saviour, rather than of the spiritual tribulations suffered. Coupled with the attack on art in worship went a redressing of the importance of music. Carlstadt called on his congregation to “relegate organs, trumpets and flutes to the theatre.”

While Wittenberg was convulsed by iconoclasm, three laymen arrived from Zwickau, claiming to be prophets and to have had intimate conversations with the Lord. Like Müntzer, they claimed that they had no need of the Bible, but relied on the Spirit. If the Bible were important, God would have dropped it directly from heaven, they said. They repudiated infant baptism and proclaimed the speedy erection of the kingdom of the godly through the slaughter of the ungodly, whether at the hands of the Turks or the godly themselves. Melanchthon was amazed by their audacity, reporting to the Elector:

I can scarcely tell you how deeply I am moved. But who shall judge them, other than Martin, I do not know. Since the gospel is at stake, arrangements should be made for them to meet with him. They wish it. I would not have written to if the matter were not so important. We must beware lest we resist the Spirit of God, and also lest we be possessed by the devil.

In his letters from the Wartburg, Luther rejected the idea of a disputation with ‘the prophets’ on religious grounds, because they talked to glibly:

Those who are expert in spiritual things have gone through the valley of the shadow. When these men talk of sweetness and of being transported to the third heaven, do not believe them. Divine Majesty does not speak directly to men. God is a consuming fire, and the dreams and visions of the saints are terrible… Prove the spirits; and if you are not able to do so, then take the advice of Gamaliel, and wait.

I am sure that we can restrain these firebrands without the sword. I hope the Prince will not imbrue his hands in their blood. I see no reason why on their account I should come home.

Frederick the Wise was harassed by one eruption after another. Next came an establishment reaction to the events at Wittenberg, news of which had reached Duke George over the border, in the area of Saxony controlled by the rival house to that of Prince Frederick. The Bishop of Meissen requested of Frederick permission to conduct a visitation throughout his domains, and Frederick consented, although making no promises to discipline offenders. Then, on 13 February Frederick issued instructions of his own to the university and to the chapter at the Castle Church:

We have  gone too fast. The common man has been incited  to frivolity, and no-one has been edified. We should have consideration for the weak. Images should be left until further notice. The question of begging should be canvassed. No essential portion of the mass should be omitted. Moot points should be discussed. Carlstadt should not preach any more.

Carlstadt submitted and agreed not to preach and Zwilling left Wittenberg. But the town council resolved to defy the elector by inviting Luther to come home. He had reached the turning point in his career. Less than a year before he had been the leader of the opposition, now he was called home to become the head of the government, albeit in a restricted area. Nevertheless, the change was vast between the role of railing against the execrable bull of Antichrist and that of providing a new pattern for Church, State and Society, a new constitution for the Church, a new liturgy, and a new Scripture in the vernacular.

Luther would never shirk a mundane task such as exhorting the elector to repair the city wall to keep the peasants’ pigs from rooting in the villagers’ gardens, but he was never supremely concerned about pigs, gardens, walls, cities, princes nor any of the blessings and nuisances of this mortal life. The ultimate problem was always man’s relationship with God. For this reason, political and social forms were to him a matter of comparative indifference. Whatever would foster the understanding, dissemination, and practice of God’s Word should be encouraged, and whatever impeded must be opposed. This is why it is futile to inquire as to whether Luther was a Democrat, aristocrat, autocrat, or anything else. Religion was for him the chief end of man, and all else peripheral.


The question of why faith is so hard and reason so inadequate was for Luther a problem far deeper than logic. Luther often railed at reason, and he has been portrayed in consequence as a complete irrationalist in religion. But this is to mistake his meaning. He employed reason in the sense of logic to its uttermost limits. At Worms and often elsewhere he asked to be instructed by Scripture and reason. In the sense reason meant logical deduction from known premises; and when Luther railed against the harlot reason, he meant something else. Common sense is perhaps a better translation. He had in mind the way in which man ordinarily behaves, feels, and thinks. It is not what God says that is a foreign tongue, but what God does that is utterly incomprehensible.

Luther’s contemporary critics arise to inquire why, if a man, in the end, has no standing with God he should make the effort to be good. Luther’s answer is that morality must be grounded somewhere else than in self-help and the quest for a reward. The paradox is that God must destroy in us all illusions of righteousness before he can make us righteous. First, we must relinquish all claims to goodness. Then there is some hope for us. We are sinners and at the same time righteous, which is to say that however bad we are, there is a power at work in us which can and will make something out of us.

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In economics, Luther was opposed to the mechanisms of capitalism and wrongly assumed that the rise in prices was due to the rapacity of the capitalists. At the same time, he himself contributed unwittingly to the developments which he deplored. The abolition of monasticism and the expropriation of ecclesiastical lands and goods, the branding of poverty as a sin or at least a lack of beneficial providence, and the exaltation of work as the imitation of God helped to stimulate the spirit of economic enterprise.

In politics, Luther came to construct a theory of government which relied heavily, as in his theology, on Paul and Augustine. He was perfectly clear that coercion could never be eliminated from the political system because society as a whole can never be made fully Christian:

The world and the masses are and always will be unchristian, although they are baptised and nominally Christian. Hence a man who would venture to govern an entire community or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who would place in one fold wolves, lions, eagles and sheep. The sheep would keep the peace, but they would not last long. The world cannot be ruled with a rosary.

A Christian can serve as a magistrate, but a magistrate need not be a Christian for God to make use of him as his instrument. And in any case, Christianity is not necessary for sound political administration because politics belongs to the sphere of nature. Reason in its own sphere is enough to tell a man how to build houses and govern states. It was even reported, he noted, that there is no better government on earth than under the Turks, who have neither civil nor canon law, but only the Koran. The natural man can be trusted to recognise and administer justice provided he operates within the framework of the law and government and does not seek to vindicate himself.


The most important distinction for Luther’s political thought, therefore, was between the lower and higher capacities of man, corresponding to nature and reason on the one hand and to grace and revelation on the other. The natural man, when not involved for himself, has enough integrity and insight to administer the state in accordance with justice, equity, and even magnanimity. These are civil virtues. But the Church inculcates humility, patience, long-suffering, and charity – the Christian virtues – attainable only by those endowed with grace, and consequently not to be expected from the masses. That is why society cannot be ruled by the gospel, and why theocracy is out of the question. Then again there are different levels involved. The God of the state is the God of the Magnificat, who exalts the lowly and abases the proud. The God of the Church is the God of Gethsemane, who suffered at the hands of men without retaliation or reviling and refused the use of the sword on his behalf.

By the beginning of 1525 the mass was at an end in Wittenberg. We cannot say that it had been suppressed by force, but there was certainly an element of coercion. Nevertheless, its demise was not inordinately hurried, since it had continued for two and a half years after Luther’s return from the Wartburg. Such changes had aroused in the papists intense antagonism, and they now had a new ‘champion’ in Pope Hadrian, who addressed Frederick the Wise with a veritable manifesto for the Counter-Reformation. But Luther’s fate, and that of his Reformation, no longer rested with the pope, the emperor, or the Elector Frederick alone, but with the German Diet meeting at Nürnberg in the spring of 1524. As at Worms, the Diet was divided. The Catholic party was rallied by the papal legate, who freely conceded past abuses but blamed them all on the deceased Leo X and called for obedience to his noble successor. In the absence of the emperor, its leadership among the laity fell to his brother Ferdinand of Austria who in his week of attendance tried to enforce the Edict of Worms on his own authority, a move quickly repulsed by the diet.

The Erasmians, the Humanists who had constituted the middle party at Worms, might have reacted in a more conciliatory manner than the main Catholic protagonists had not the pressures been so intense as to leave no room for neutrality. Reluctantly, the ‘mediators’ were driven into one camp or the other and went in both directions. The deepest offence felt by Luther lay in the stance taken by their leader, Erasmus of Rotterdam himself. He still felt that Luther had done much good and that he was no heretic. He had openly declared this in a colloquy earlier in the year. But he deplored the disintegration of Christendom which had shattered his dream of European concord following the outbreak of war between France and the empire three years earlier, at the end of the Diet of Worms. In the end, under pressure from his old friend, Pope Hadrian, he expressed the point on which he differed from Luther, the doctrine of man. He had already brought out a tract on this, entitled On the Freedom of the WillLuther thanked him for centring the discussion on this point:

You alone have gone to the heart of the problem instead of debating the papacy, indulgences, purgatory, and similar trifles. You alone have gone to the core, and I thank you for it.

Luther’s fundamental break with the Catholic Church was over the nature and destiny of man, and much more over destiny than nature. That was why he and Erasmus did not come to outright conflict. Erasmus was primarily interested in morals, whereas Luther’s question was whether doing right, even if it is possible, can affect man’s fate. Erasmus succeeded in diverting Luther from the course by asking whether the ethical precepts of the Gospels have any point if they cannot be fulfilled. Luther countered that man is like a donkey ridden now by God and now by the Devil, a statement which certainly seems to imply that man has no freedom whatever to decide for good or ill. Natural reason, however much it is offended, must admit the consequences of the omniscience and omnipotence of God, he argued. Erasmus perceived that the conflict lay between the power and goodness of God. He would rather limit the power than forfeit the goodness.


Those who had broken with Rome were not themselves united. Partly through defections from Lutheranism and partly through the independent rise of variant forms of evangelicalism the pattern of diversity was displayed. Luther had already begun to perceive that he was closer to Rome than to the radicals: I take the middle road, he wrote, finding himself now in the position formerly occupied by the Erasmians at Worms. When they were driven to the wall, the Lutherans emerged as the middle group between the papists and the sectaries. In many respects, they were the heirs to Erasmus, who saw the great abuse of Catholicism, not as did Luther in the exaltation of man but in the externalisation of religion. The inner life of man had already been set in opposition to the literature of the Scriptures by the Zwickau prophets and Thomas Müntzer.

The experience of the spirit was made the necessary qualification for Church membership. Infant baptism was consequently rejected, if not indeed all baptism, on the ground that outward water “profiteth nothing”. The Church of the spirit is of necessity a sect which may seek to preserve its integrity by segregation from society or may attempt to dominate the world through the reign of the saints. Here is the concept of all the Protestant theocracies. Within the religious community, leadership falls to the Spirit-filled, be they clerical or lay, and the outcome may well be the abolition of a professional ministry.

Another Erasmian idea was the restitution of primitive Christianity, a restoration of the religion of the spirit. The whole pattern of these ideas was alien to Luther, who found it impossible to separate the spirit from the flesh because man is a whole. For him, art, music and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are appropriate expressions of religion. The attempt to build a church on a selective basis did intrigue him, and his fury against the sectaries was in large measure intensified by the conflict within himself. But the notion of a Protestant theocracy was to him as abhorrent as the papal monarchy. The real question for the Lutherans in Wittenberg was whether the physical forms of worship were an aid or an impediment to faith. In the end, Carlstadt’s Biblicism restrained him from rejecting the Lord’s Supper entirely, as a means of grace. He retained the rite because of Christ’s own commandment: This do in remembrance of me.

Similarly, he rejected infant baptism as having no scriptural basis. The Zwickau prophets had done this before him, and the Anabaptists were to make this the cardinal tenet of their sect. The essential point was the necessity of an adult experience of religious conviction. Luther had also proclaimed the priesthood of all believers and though Carlstadt would not go as far as rejecting the need for a professional ministry altogether, but he wished as a minister not to be set apart from his fellows by their use of Herr Doktor or Herr Pfarrer, but to be addressed simply as good neighbour or Brother Andreas. He gave up any distinctive garb and wore only a play grey coat, declining the financial support of his congregation and undertaking instead to earn his living at the plough. While he cared nothing for the whole hierarchy of academic degrees, he cared mightily for a trained ministry and perceived that if Carlstadt’s plan prevailed the outcome would be not that the peasant would know as much as the preacher, but the preacher would know no more than the peasant. He made fun of Carlstadt for reeling off Hebrew quotations in a peasant’s smock.


Thomas Müntzer gave a much more turn than Carlstadt to the separation of spirit and flesh by rejecting not only infant baptism, but all baptism, and by applying this dualism to the spirit versus the letter of Scripture. Those who rely on the letter, he said, are the scribes against whom Christ railed. Scripture as a mere book is but paper and ink. “Bible, Babel, bubble!” he cried. As a written record, it did not reassure him because he observed that it is convincing only to the convinced. He pointed out that the Turks were well-acquainted with the Bible, but remained completely alienated from the Christian religion. In 1523 Müntzer had succeeded in having himself elected as the minister in the Saxon town of Allstedt. The only overt act, however, was the burning of a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in March 1524. This prompted Luther to address the princes of Saxony:

These Allstedters revile the Bible and rave about the spirit, but where do they show the fruits of the spirit, love, joy, peace, and patience? Do not interfere with them so long as they confine themselves to the office of the Word. Let the spirits fight it out, but when the sword is drawn you must step in, be it they or we who take it. You must banish the offender from the land. Our office is simply preaching and suffering. Christ and the apostles did not smash images and churches, but won hearts with God’s Word. The Old Testament slaughter of the ungodly is not to be imitated. If these Allstedters want to wipe out the ungodly, they will have to bathe in blood. But you are ordained of God to keep the peace, and you must not sleep.

The young prince John Frederick, nephew and heir apparent to Frederick the Wise, was already being associated with his uncle and his father in the administration of Saxony. He wrote to a subordinate in August 1524, linking together Carlstadt and Müntzer:

I am having a terrible time with the Satan of Allstedt. Kindliness and letters do not suffice. The sword which is ordained of God to punish the evil must be used with energy. Carlstadt also is stirring up something, and the Devil wants to be Lord.

For Carlstadt, the association was both unjust and unfortunate. He had already written to Müntzer that he would have nothing with his covenant, nor with bloodshed. But the iconoclastic riots in Orlamünde and Allstedt appeared to be of one stripe. Carlstadt was summoned to Jena for an interview with Luther and convinced him of the injustice of the charge of rebellion. When, however, Luther visited Orlamünde and witnessed the revolutionary temper of the congregation, he came to question the sincerity of the disclaimer and acquiesced in the banishment of Carlstadt, who was compelled to quit Saxony, leaving behind his pregnant wife and daughter, to join him later. In departing, he used the same words Luther had used after Worms, that he was leaving “unheard and unconvinced,” and that he had been expelled by his former colleague who was twice a papist and a cousin of the Antichrist.


In July 1524, Müntzer was summoned to preach at Weimar in the presence of Frederick the Wise and his brother Duke John, who had abandoned the Catholic faith to become a follower of Luther. Müntzer had the temerity to seek to enlist them among his followers. He took as his text Daniel’s interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar and began by saying that the Church was an undefiled virgin until corrupted by the scribes who murder the Spirit and assert that God no longer reveals himself as of old. He further declared:

But God does disclose himself in the inner word in the abyss of the soul. The man who has not received the living witness of God knows really nothing about God, though he may have swallowed a hundred thousand Bibles. God comes in dreams to his beloved as he did to the patriarchs, prophets and apostles. He comes especially in affliction. That is why Brother Easychair rejects him. God pours out his Spirit upon all flesh, and now the Spirit reveals to the elect a mighty and irresistible reformation for us. This is the fulfillment of the prediction of Daniel about the fifth monarchy. You princes of Saxony, you need a new Daniel to disclose unto you this revelation and to show your rule. Think not that the power of God will be realized if your swords rust in the scabbard. Christ said that he came not to bring peace but a sword, and Deuteronomy says “You are a holy people. Spare not the idolators, break down their altars, smash their images and burn them in the fire.” The sword is given to you to wipe out the ungodly. If you decline, it will be taken from you. Those who resist should be slaughtered without mercy as Elijah smote the priests of Baal. Priests and monks who mock the gospel should be killed. The godless have no right to live. May you like Nebuchadnezzar appoint a Daniel to inform you of the leadings of the spirit. 

Müntzer admitted that the princes could not carry out these tasks effectively unless they were informed of God’s purposes. That they could not attain for themselves since they were still too far from God. Therefore, he concluded, they must have at their court a priest who has fitted himself to interpret their dreams and visions, just as Daniel did at the court of Nebuchadnezzar. The Biblical allusions which accompany this recommendation show clearly enough that he saw himself as the inspired prophet who was to replace Luther in the favour of the princes, as Daniel replaced the illuminated scribes. In this way, he reckoned to acquire such influence over the rulers of the land that he would be able to direct them in making the necessary preparations for the Millennium.

On returning to Allstedt, however, he did not wait for the Saxon princes’ reaction to his preaching, but escaped by night over the town walls and fled from Saxony. The régime of Carlstadt would have been authoritarian and that of Müntzer’s saints intolerant of the godless. Yet it could not be denied that both agitators had been expelled by the sword of the magistrate, who was now in danger of creating martyrs out of the radicals. This became more likely because of the rise of rival forms of evangelicalism, namely Zwinglianism and Anabaptism. Adding to this maelstrom was the confluence of religious ferment with the vast social unrest of the Peasants’ War in which Müntzer played a leading role. Despite this, he does not seem to have shown as much interest in improving the material lot of the peasants among whom he lived, or in the nature of future society as in the mass extermination which was supposed to usher it in.

Yet Müntzer might still have imagined his Millennium as egalitarian, even as communistic. He knew the young Humanist, Ulrich Hugwald, who had written a work prophesying that mankind would return to Christ, to Nature, to Paradise, which he defined as a state without war or want or luxury and in which every person would share all things with their brethren. Moreover, on the grounds that a peasant’s life was nearest to that which God had appointed for Adam and Eve, Hugwald ended by turning himself into a peasant. So did the Humanist, Karlstadt, a close associate and even a disciple of Müntzer.  According to Histori Thomá Muntzers, written while Muntzer’s story was very fresh in people’s minds, Müntzer taught that there should be neither kings nor lords and also, on the strength of a misunderstanding in Acts iv, that all things should be held in common.

In a pamphlet which he now produced, The explicit unmaking of the false belief of the faithless world, Müntzer made it plain that the princes were now unfit to play any part at all in bringing about the Millennium,…

for they have spent their lives in bestial eating and drinking, from their youth onwards they have been brought up most delicately, in all their life they have never had a bad day and they neither wish nor intend to accept one.

 Indeed it is the princes and the lords and all the rich and powerful who, by stubbornly maintaining the existing social order, prevent not only themselves but also others from attaining the true faith:

The powerful,self-willed unbelievers must be put down from their seats because hinder the holy, genuine Christian faith in themselves and in the whole world, when it is trying to emerge in all its true, original force… the great do everything in their power to keep the common people from perceiving the truth.


Bound together by common interest in financial profit, they so harass the poor with their usury and taxes that the poor have no time left in which to study and follow the Law of God. Yet, Müntzer argued, all this is no reason for despair; on the contrary, the very excesses of the tyranny which now oppresses the world are a sure sign that the great consummation is indeed at hand. It is precisely because God is sending his light his light into the world that…

… certain (lords) are only now really beginning to hamper and harass, to shear and shave, to threaten all Christendom and shamefully and most cruelly torture and kill their own folk and strangers too.

It was now the Poor who were the potential Elect, charged with the mission of inaugurating the egalitarian Millennium. They would emerge as the one true Church, but even they were not yet fit to enter their appointed glory. First, they too must be broken of their worldly desires, so that they could with sighs and prayers recognise their abject condition and at the same time their need for a new, God-sent leader. Just as he had previously offered his services to the princes as a new Daniel, so he now proposed himself as this leader of the people.

He then issued a more virulent pamphlet, this time against Luther, whom he had come to regard as his arch-enemy. Just as much as Müntzer, Luther performed all his deeds in the conviction that the Last Days were at hand. But in his view, the sole enemy was the Papacy, in which he saw the Antichrist, the false prophet; it was by the dissemination of the true Gospel that the Papacy would be overcome. The Kingdom which replaced it would not be of this world. An armed revolt would, therefore, be irrelevant and pernicious, because it would shatter the social order which allowed the world to be disseminated, and would discredit the Reformation which, to Luther, was the most important event in the world. On the other hand, Müntzer for his part saw in Luther an eschatological figure, the Beast of the Apocalypse or the Whore of Babylon. In attacking Luther in The most amply called-for defence Müntzer formulates most coherently his doctrine of social revolution. He maintains that in the hands of ‘the great’ the Law of God becomes simply a device for protecting property, which they themselves have appropriated. In a bitter attack upon Luther he exclaims:

The wretched flatterer is silent… about the origin of all theft… Look, the seed-grounds of usury and theft and robbery are our lords and princes, they take all creatures as their property: the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the ground, have all got to be theirs… They publish God’s commandments amongst the poor and say “God has commanded, thou shalt not steal.” … They oppress all people, and shear and shave the poor ploughman and everything that lives, yet if (the ploughman) commits the slightest offence, he must hang.

Luther’s greatest crime is that he justifies these injustices:

You wily fox… by your lies you have made sad the heart of the righteous man, whom God has not saddened, and thereby you have strengthened the power of the ungodly scoundrels, so that they shall continue in their old ways. Therefore things will go with you as with a fox when it is caught. The people will become free and God alone means to be Lord over them.

Ironically enough, the princes whom Müntzer had chiefly in mind, the Elector Frederick and Duke John, were alone among the German princes in being extremely tolerant, having been profoundly disoriented by the vast upheaval in their territories which the Wittenbergers had inaugurated. In dealing with the revolutionaries of Allstedt both brothers showed equal uncertainty. It was more as a gesture of defiance that Müntzer, a week after his hearing at Weimar, broke his parole and climbed over the wall to make his way to the free imperial city of Mülhausen. The large Thuringian town had been in a state of turbulence for over a year and was half-full of paupers, who in times of crisis always showed themselves ready for radical social experiments. Here he found a small but enthusiastic following. Yet when a revolt broke out it was quickly suppressed and Müntzer, once more expelled, resumed his wanderings towards Nürnberg. There he published two revolutionary tracts, which were confiscated by the Town Council and he was forced to leave again. He was then recalled to Mülhausen, where a former monk, Heinrich Pfeiffer, led the poorer burghers in a successful revolution against the Town Council in March 1525. But the event which enabled Müntzer to show himself as a revolutionary in action was the outbreak of the Peasants’ War.

Nothing did so much as the Peasants’ War to make Luther recoil against a too drastic departure from the pattern of the Middle Ages. The Peasants’ War did not arise out of any immediate connection with the religious issues of the sixteenth century because agrarian unrest had been brewing for fully a century. Uprisings had occurred all over Europe, including one in Hungary in 1514 which was put down in a particularly savage manner (see the woodcut below). In southern Germany, the peasants suffered from changes which ultimately should have ministered to their security and prosperity. Feudal anarchy was being superseded through the consolidation of power in nation-states in Early Modern Europe. Spain, England and France were good examples of this, but in Germany, this had happened only on a territorial basis; and in each political unit, the princes were endeavouring to integrate the administration with the help of a bureaucracy of salaried court officials. The expenses were met by increased levies on the land. In time-honoured tradition, the peasants, of course, had to ‘foot’ the bill.

(to be continued…)


Appendix: The Punishment of Peasant Rebels in Hungary, 1514…



















Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Two.   Leave a comment

Below: Conflict in the sixteenth century, a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer


Part Two – Martin Luther, Humanism and Nationalism:

The late fifteenth century saw a consolidation of many European states and a coalescence of Europe into the political contours which were to shape it for almost four hundred years, until the crisis of nationalism in the nineteenth century. In the southwest, the Spanish state emerged with the final conquest of Granada from the Muslim Moors in 1492 and the Union of the crowns of Aragon and Castille. The French kings continued the process of expanding the royal domain, until by 1483 only the Duchy of Brittany remained more or less independent, and even this was absorbed in the early sixteenth century. England had lost all its lands in France, except for Calais, and was racked by a bitter civil war from 1453 to 1487, from which it began to emerge under the Welsh Tudor dynasty from 1485 onwards as a maritime power, whose interests in terms of territorial expansion lay outside Europe.


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Above: King Matthias Hunting at Vajdahunyád. This most impressive Transylvanian castle was the residence of the Hunyádi dynasty and seat of their immense estates.

In the East, Hungary’s power and influence grew in the reign of Matthias Corvinus from 1458 until 1490. Corvinus was a renaissance ruler who promoted learning, but he also had to resist the Turkish advance. He maintained a largely defensive attitude, seeking to preserve his kingdom without trying to push back the Ottomans to any great extent. His main attention was directed westwards. With the standing army he had developed, he hoped to become the crown of Bohemia and become Holy Roman Emperor. Bohemia remained divided as a result of the Hussite Wars and in 1468 Corvinus obtained Papal support to conduct a crusade against its Hussite ruler, George Podebrady. This led to the partition of the Bohemian kingdom. Corvinus gained Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia as well as the title ‘King of Bohemia’, though not Bohemia itself. Corvinus was opposed by the Emperor Frederick III (1440-93) who had been elected ruler of Hungary in 1439 by a group of nobles. Nevertheless, Corvinus was successful, in gaining Lower Austria and Styria from Austria, and transferring his capital to Vienna. The Hungarian state developed considerably under Matthias Corvinus, although he continued to face opposition from nobles concerned about their privileges.


Portrait of Matthias Corvinus from the Philostratus Codex, c. 1487-1490


The beginnings of the primacy of the nation-state are conventionally traced to the early sixteenth century. A new type of king arose across, like Matthias Corvinus, called the Renaissance Prince. These monarchs attacked the powers of the nobles and tried to unite their countries. In England, this process was accelerated by the eventual victory of the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, but on the continent, it was much slower. The mercantile classes were generally hostile to the warlike feudal nobles, who interfered with and interrupted their trade, so they tended to support the king against the nobles. A new sense of unity arose, where local languages and dialects merged into national languages and, through the advent of the printing press, national literatures developed.

For a while, however, the most successful states appeared to be multi-national ones, such as the Ottoman Empire in the east, or the universal monarchy built up by Charles V, encompassing Spain, the Netherlands and the Austrian dominions of the Habsburgs. The small states of the Holy Roman Empire, the patchwork of cities and territories, also contained some of the most affluent parts of Europe. Charles of Habsburg inherited, by quirks of marriage and early deaths, the Burgundian Netherlands (1506), the united Spanish crowns (1516), and the lands of his grandfather Maximilian of Austria (1519), after which he succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor. The Imperial title, the secular equivalent of the Papacy, still carried immense prestige, giving its holder pre-eminence over lesser monarchs.

The Empire was a waning but still imposing legacy of the Middle Ages. Since the office of emperor was elective, any European prince was eligible, but the electors were predominantly German and therefore preferred a German. Yet they were realistic enough to recognise that no German had sufficient strength in his own right to sustain the office. They were, therefore, ready to accept the head of one of the great powers, and the choice lay between Francis of France and Charles of Spain. Francis I tried in vain to secure election, seeing the danger of his country being encircled by a ring of hostile territories. The Pope objected to either, however, because an accretion of power on one side or the other would destroy that balance of power on which papal security depended. When the Germans despaired of a German, the pope threw his support to Frederick the Wise, but Frederick himself, sensible of his inadequacies, defeated himself by voting for the Habsburg.

For centuries the seven Electors had chosen the Habsburg heir, but previously he had been German, or at least German-speaking; At the age of just twenty, Charles I of Spain became Emperor Charles V on 28 June 1519. Francis pursued his legacy of French claims to Milan and Naples, and sought to extend his eastern frontier towards the Rhine. He was an ambitious man, but also frivolous, whereas Charles was regarded as harder-working. The rivalry between the two men was to dominate European politics from 1519 to 1547. While Charles emerged as the more powerful of the two, he had many more problems to distract him. Winning the election was only the beginning of his trials, as Charles now faced an immense task of keeping his domains united.  The main source of his power and wealth continued to lie in the Netherlands, in the seventeen separate provinces that he had inherited from his father, Philip the Handsome, in 1506. The great commercial wealth of these provinces made their taxes particularly valuable, even if their independent-mindedness meant that Charles had to treat them with extreme caution. Besides the territories he had inherited, Charles added several more Dutch provinces, Milan, Mexico and Peru to his empire at home and overseas.


Europe in the time of Henry VIII, Charles I of Spain and Francis I of France

The Map above shows the extent of Charles’ scattered empire; it included many peoples, each proud of their own traditions, language, and separate government. Even in Spain, only the royal will bound together Castile with Granada and Aragon, which, in turn, was made up of the four distinct states of Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia and Navarre. There was a serious revolt in Aragon itself in 1520. Besides Spain, he had to assert his nominal authority over the independent princes, bishops, knights and city-states that formed the Holy Roman Empire.  If all this wasn’t enough to contend with, he was opposed by successive popes, who resented his power in Italy despite his championship of the Roman Church. Within the Church, from 1517, reformers like Martin Luther had begun to challenge the authority of both the ecclesiastical and secular leaders of the Empire, leading to further disunity both within and between the German states.


Above: The Central European Habsburg Empire of Charles V

The rise of Protestantism in Germany in the first half of the sixteenth century placed an additional strain on his European empire. Charles failed to suppress it by force, but held firm to Catholicism even though, in Germany at least, it might have been politically expedient to convert to Lutheranism. In 1517-19, Martin Luther had challenged the authority of the Pope in tolerating the abuses of the Church, and a considerable movement for reform had grown around his protest at Wittenberg. His work and that of subsequent reformers was greatly stimulated by the translation of the Bible into ‘high’ German, which Luther himself completed in 1534, and by its printing and widespread publication. This religious movement coincided with the rise of national feeling. Renaissance princes, eager to gain complete domination over their territories, were supported in a breach with the Pope by their subjects, who regarded Papal authority as foreign interference. The wealth and lands of the Church, combined by the heavy exactions it made on its adherents, had provoked great dissatisfaction among princes, merchants and peasants.


In 1517, the impulsive and headstrong Augustinian friar and Professor of Theology at Wittenberg had denounced the sale of indulgences by unprincipled agents of the Papal envoy, Tetzel, and had won enthusiastic support. The Pope sent Cardinal Cajetan to interview Luther at Augsburg (I have written about these early disputations over indulgences in more detail elsewhere on this site). When he got word that Cajetan had been empowered by the Pope to arrest him, Luther escaped the city gates by night, fleeing in such haste that he had to ride to Nürnberg in his cowl, without breeches, spurs, stirrups or a sword. He arrived back in Wittenberg on 30 October, exactly a year after he had first posted his 95 Theses to the Castle church door. Cajetan then demanded that Frederick the Wise should either send  Luther bound to Rome or else banish him from his territories. Luther made matters even more difficult for his prince by publishing his own version of his interview with the Cardinal. There was no longer any attempt to explain the papal decree against him in any favourable sense. Instead, he declared that it was emphatically false, and contrasted the ambiguous decretal of a mortal pope with the clear testimonies of Holy Scripture:

The Apostolic Legate opposed me with the thunder of his majesty and told me to recant. I told him the pope abused Scripture. I will honour the sanctity of the pope, but I will adore the sanctity of Christ and the truth. I do not deny this new monarchy of the Roman Church which has arisen in our generation, but I deny that you cannot be a Christian without being subject to the decrees of the Roman pontiff… I resist those who in the name of the Roman Church wish to institute Babylon.

His accusation that the Roman pontiff and curia were instituting Babylon introduced an apocalyptic tone into the dispute. On 28 November, Luther lodged with a notary an appeal to the pope for a general council, declaring that such a council, legitimately called in the Holy Spirit, could better represent the Catholic Church than the pope, who, being a man, was able to err, sin and lie. Not even St Peter, he pointed out, was above this infirmity.  Luther had the appeal printed, requesting that all the copies should be withheld from publication unless and until he was actually banned. The printer, however, disregarded the embargo and gave them out immediately to the public. Pope Julius II had ruled that a direct appeal to a council, without papal consent, constituted in itself an act of heresy. Luther had placed himself in an exposed situation and had also embarrassed his prince. Frederick the Wise considered himself to be a most Catholic prince. He was addicted to the cult of relics, devoted to indulgences and quite sincere in his claim that he was not in a position to judge Luther’s teaching. That was why he had founded the University of Wittenberg and why he so often turned to it for advice on matters juristic and theological. Luther was one of the doctors of that university, commissioned to instruct his prince in matters of faith.

As far as Frederick was concerned, if the pope declared Luther a heretic, that would settle the matter, but the pontiff had not yet pontificated. Neither had the theological faculty at Wittenberg repudiated their colleague. Many scholars throughout Germany believed Luther to be right. Frederick differed from many other princes in that he never asked how to extend his territories nor even how to preserve his dignities. His only question was, what is my duty as a Christian prince? He wrote to the Emperor beseeching him either to drop the case or to grant a hearing before unimpeachable judges in Germany. He also sent to Cajetan the only document ever sent to the Roman curia on Luther’s behalf:

We are sure that you acted paternally towards Luther, but we understand that he was not shown sufficient cause to revoke. There are learned men in the universities who hold that his teaching has not been shown to be unjust, unchristian, or heretical. The few who think so are jealous of his attainments. If we understand his doctrine to be impious or untenable, we would not defend it. Our whole purpose is to fulfill the office of a Christian prince. Therefore we hope that Rome will pronounce on the question. As for sending him to Rome or banishing him, that we will do only after he has been convicted of heresy. … He should be shown in what respect he is a heretic and not condemned in advance. We will not lightly allow ourselves to be drawn into error nor to be made disobedient to the Holy See. 

Prince Frederick also appended a copy of a letter from the University of Wittenberg in Luther’s defence. Luther himself wrote to his mentor and confidant, George Spalatin, to express his joy at reading the prince’s letter to the Papal Legate. Cajetan knew that, although Luther was a vexation, he was not yet a heretic, since heresy involved a rejection of the established dogma of the Church, and the doctrine of indulgences had not yet received an official papal definition. On 9 November 1518, the bull Cum Postquam definitely clarified many of the disputed points. Indulgences were declared only to apply to penalty and not to guilt, which must first have been remitted through the sacrament of penance. In the case of the penalties of purgatory, the pope could do no more than present to God the treasury of the superfluous merits of Christ and the saints by way of petition. This decretal terminated some of the worst abuses Luther had complained about in his Ninety-Five Theses.

Had it appeared earlier, the controversy might conceivably have been terminated, but in the interim Luther had attacked not only papal power but also the infallibility of the Pope. He had also questioned the biblical basis for the sacrament of penance and had rejected part of canon law as being inconsistent with Scripture. For his part, the Pope had called him ‘a son of iniquity’ and the loyal Dominicans had already declared him to be ‘a notorious heretic’. The conciliatory policy commenced in December 1518 was prompted by political considerations which now became more marked due to the death of Emperor Maximilian and the need to elect a successor as Holy Roman Emperor. The election of Charles V at the end of June 1519 made no great difference to the situation with Luther, because for over a year Charles was too occupied in Spain to concern himself with Germany, where Frederick remained the pivotal figure. The pope still could not afford to alienate him unduly over Luther and so his conciliatory policy continued.

Tetzel was made the scapegoat for the controversy over indulgences. Cajetan’s new German assistant, Milititz summoned him to a hearing and charged that he was extravagant in travelling with two horses and a carriage, and that he had two illegitimate children. Tetzel retired to a convent where he died of chagrin. Luther wrote sympathetically to him; you didn’t start this racket: The child had another father. 



Meanwhile, the University of Wittenberg was becoming known as a Lutheran institution. Prominent among the faculty were Carlstadt and Melanchthon. Carlstadt, a senior colleague to Luther, was erudite but sometimes recklessly outspoken and more radical. Melanchthon was gentler, younger (at twenty-one) a prodigy of learning, already enjoying a pan-European reputation. These two reformers ‘in their own right’ soon became the leaders of the Reformation in Wittenberg. Against them, the papacy found a worthy academic in John Eck, a professor from the University of Ingolstadt, who had already published a refutation of Luther’s theses. He had been Luther’s friend, a humanist and a German. Eck also succeeded in persuading the University of Leipzig to sponsor him against Wittenberg, which added the internal political rivalry of ducal and electoral Saxony to the mix. Duke George, the patron of Leipzig, agreed that Eck should debate with Carlstadt at Leipzig. Carlstadt had already launched a determined defence of Luther and a virulent attack on Eck, but the latter was in no mood to accept ‘second best’. He openly baited Luther by challenging his assertions that the Roman Church in the days of Constantine had not been seen as superior to the other churches and that the popes had not always been seen as in apostolic succession to Peter, and that therefore the papacy was a relatively recent human institution, not a divine one.


Above: Philip Melanchthon’s study in his home in Wittenberg


Clearly, this debate was between Eck and Luther, but the bishop of the diocese interposed a prohibition. Duke George said that all he wanted to know was whether as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. He reminded the bishop that…

Disputations have been allowed from ancient times, even concerning the Holy Trinity. What good is a soldier if he is not allowed to fight, a sheep dog if he may not bark, and a theologian if he may not debate? Better spend money to support old women who can knit than theologians who cannot discuss.

Luther set himself to prepare for the debate. Since he had asserted that only in the decretals of the previous four hundred years could the claims of papal primacy be established, he must devote himself to a study of the decretals. As he worked, his conclusions grew even more radical. He wrote to a friend in January that…

Eck is fomenting new wars against me. He may yet drive me to a serious attack upon the Romanists. So far I have been merely trifling.

In March, Luther confided to Spalatin:

I am studying the papal decretals for my debate. I whisper this in your ear, “I do not know whether the pope is Antichrist or his apostle, so does he in his decretals corrupt and crucify Christ, that is, the truth.”

The reference to Antichrist was ominous. Luther was to find it easier to convince people that the pope was Antichrist than that ‘the just shall live by faith’. The suspicion which Luther did not yet dare to breathe in the open linked him with the medieval millenarian sectaries who had revived and transformed the theme of Antichrist, the figure invented by the Jews and developed in early Christian eschatology in times of captivity and persecution to derive comfort from their calamities on the grounds that the Advent or Second Coming of the Messiah would be retarded by the machinations of an Anti-Messiah, whose predominant evil would reach a peak before the Saviour would come. The gloomiest picture of the present thus became the most encouraging vision for the future. The Book of Revelation had added the details that before ‘the End of Time’ two witnesses would testify and suffer martyrdom. Then the Archangel Michael would appear, together with a figure with flaming eyes upon a white horse, to cast the beast into the abyss. How the theme was dealt with in Luther’s day is graphically illustrated in a woodcut from the Nürnberg Chronicle (below):


In previous posts on this site, I have examined how the theme became very popular in the late Middle Ages among Flagellants, Wyclifites and Hussites, especially the more radical Táborites in Bohemia, who increasingly identified the popes with the Antichrist soon to be overthrown.  Luther was, therefore, aligning himself with these sectaries, with one significant difference. Whereas they had identified particular popes with Antichrist, due to their apparently evil lives as well as other contemporary events, Luther held that every pope was Antichrist even if personally exemplary in their conduct, because Antichrist was for him a collective symbol of penultimate evil, the institution of the papacy and the Roman curia, a system which corrupts the the truth of Christ and the true Church. This explains how Luther could repeatedly address Leo X in terms of personal respect only a few days after blasting him as Antichrist. Nevertheless, to one who had been, and remained, so devoted to the Holy Father as the chief vicar of Christ, the thought that he, in person, might be Christ’s great opponent was difficult to reconcile. At the same time, it was also a comforting thought, for the doom of Antichrist was ensured by Scripture. If Luther should be martyred like the two witnesses, his executioner would soon be demolished by the hand of God. It was no longer merely a fight between men, but against the principalities and powers and the ruler over this darkness on earth.


Meanwhile, between 4-14 July Luther engaged in the Leipzig debate with Eck. The Wittenbergers arrived a few days after Eck; Luther, Carlstadt and Melanchthon with other doctors and two hundred students armed with battle-axes. Eck was provided with a bodyguard of seventy-six men by the town council, to protect him from the Wittenbergers and the Bohemians who were believed to be amongst them. The concourse was so great that Duke George placed the auditorium of the Castle at their disposal. After a week of theological debate between Eck and Carlstadt, Luther answered a rhetorical question from Duke George; what does it all matter whether the pope is by divine right or by human right? He remains the pope just the same. Luther used the intervention to insist that by denying the divine origin of the papacy he was not counselling a withdrawal of obedience from the Pontiff. For Eck, however, the claim of the Pope to unquestioning obedience rested on the belief that his office was divinely instituted. Eck then attacked Luther’s teaching in its similarities with that of Wyclif and Hus, both of whom had been condemned as heretics in the early fifteenth century:

“I see” said Eck “that you are following the damned and pestiferous errors of John Wyclif, who said ‘It is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman Church is above all others.’ And you are espousing the pestilent errors of John Hus, who claimed that Peter neither was nor is the head of the Holy Catholic Church.”

“I repulse the charge of Bohemianism,” roared Luther. “I have never approved of their schism. Even though they had divine right on their side, they ought not to have withdrawn from the Church, because the highest divine right is unity and charity.”

Eck was driving Luther onto dangerous territory, especially at Leipzig, because Bohemia was close by and, within living memory, the Hussites had invaded and ravaged the Saxon lands thereabouts. Luther used an interlude in proceedings to go to the university library and read the acts of the Council of Constance, at which Hus had been condemned to be burnt. To his amazement, he found among the reproved articles the following statements of Hus:

The one holy universal Church is the company of the predestined… The universal Holy Church is one, as the number of the elect is one. 

He recognised the theology of these statements as deriving directly from St Augustine. When the assembly reconvened, Luther declared:

 Among the articles of John Hus, I find many which are plainly Christian and evangelical, which the universal church cannot condemn… As for the article of Hus that ‘it is not necessary for salvation to believe the Roman Church is superior to all others’, I do not care whether this comes from Wyclif or Hus. I know that innumerable Greeks have been saved though they never heard this article. It is not in the power of the Roman pontiff or of the Inquisition to construct new articles of faith. No believing Christian can be coerced beyond holy writ. By divine law we are forbidden to believe anything which is not established by divine Scripture or manifest revelation. One of the canon lawyers has said that the opinion of a single private man has more weight than that of a Roman pontiff or an ecclesiastical council if grounded on a better authority or reason. I cannot believe that the Council of Constance would condemn these propositions of Hus… The Council did not say that all the articles of Hus were heretical. It said that ‘some were heretical, some erroneous, some blasphemous, some presumptuous, some sedtious and some offensive to pious respectively… 

Luther went on, now in German, to reiterate that a council cannot make divine right out of that which by nature is not divine right and make new articles of faith, and that a simple layman armed with Scripture is… above a pope or a council without it. Articles of faith must come from Scripture, for the sake of which we should reject pope and councils. Eck retorted, in a manner which conjured up memories of the Hussite hordes ravaging Saxon lands, that this is the Bohemian virus, in that the Reverend Father, against the holy Council of the Constance and the consensus of all Christians does not fear to call certain articles of Wyclif and Hus most Christian and evangelical. 

After the Leipzig debate, Eck came upon a new fagot for Luther’s pyre. “At any rate,” he crowed, “no one is hailing me as the Saxon Hus.” Two letters to Luther had been intercepted, from Hussites of Prague, in which they said, “What Hus was once in Bohemia you, Martin, are in Saxony. Stand firm.” When they did eventually reach Luther, they were accompanied by a copy of Hus’s work On the Church. “I agree now with more articles of Hus than I did at Leipzig,” Luther commented. In February of the following year, he had come to the conclusion that “we are all Hussites without knowing it.” For Eck and the Roman Pontiff and curia, however, ‘Hussite’ remained a byword for ‘heretic’, and Luther was indeed known amongst them as ‘the Saxon Hus’. Luther was still in mortal danger, and no doubt remembered how his predecessor had been given an imperial pass to Constance and never returned.

By February 1520, Luther had also become a national figure in Germany, as a result of the Leipzig debate. His endorsement of Hus was not likely to have brought him acclaim among Germans more widely, except that it cast him in the role of an insurgent heretic who had held his argument against one of the most renowned theologians of his time. But it may well have been the dissemination of his writings which proved more influential in making him not only a national but also an international figure. In addition to reaching Spain and England, the Swiss reformer Zwingli had also been distributing his printed sermons around Zurich and the Swiss cantons. Such acclaim rapidly made Luther the head of a movement which has come to be known as the Reformation. As it took on shape, it was bound to come into contact with those two great philosophical movements of his day, the Renaissance and nationalism.


The Renaissance was a many-sided phenomenon in which a central place was occupied by the ideal commonly labelled ‘Humanism’. Although a synthesis between the classical and the Christian had already been achieved by St Augustine, a menace to Christianity was still implicit in the movement because it was centred on mankind, because the search for truth in any quarter might lead to ‘relativism’ and because the philosophies of antiquity had no place for the distinctive tenets of Christianity: the Incarnation and the Cross. Yet, at several points, Humanism and the Reformation could form an alliance. Both demanded the right of free investigation. The Humanists included the Bible and the biblical languages in the curriculum of reviving antiquity, and Luther’s battle for the right understanding of Paul’s teaching on the Hebrews appeared to them, as to Luther himself, as a continuation of the campaign of the great German Hebraist, Reuchlin, over the freedom of scholarship (see the cartoon below).


The deepest affinity appeared at that point where the Renaissance man was not so sure of himself, when he began to wonder whether his valour might not be thwarted by the goddess Fortuna or whether his destiny had not already been determined by the stars. Here was Luther’s problem of God the capricious and God the adverse. Renaissance man, confronted by this enigma and having no deep religion of his own, was commonly disposed to find solace less in Luther’s stupefying irrationalities than in the venerable authority of the Church. Erasmus was closer to Luther than any other figure of the Renaissance because he was so Christian. His ideal, like that of Luther, was to revive the Christian consciousness of Europe through the dissemination of the sacred writings, and to that end, it was Erasmus who first made available the New Testament in its Greek original. The volume reached Wittenberg just as Luther was working on the ninth chapter of Romans, and thereafter it became his working tool. It was from this tool that he learned of the inaccuracy of the Vulgate rendering of ‘do penance’ rather than ‘be penitent’. Luther and Erasmus had much in common. Both insisted that the Church of their day had relapsed into the Judaistic legalism castigated by St Paul. Christianity, said Erasmus, has been made to consist not in loving one’s neighbour, but in abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent.



Nevertheless, Erasmus was wary of giving his unreserved support to Luther. He was nostalgic for the old unities of Europe, the multi-cultural states and empires. His dream was that Christian Humanism might serve as a check upon the growth of nationalism. The threat of war and division implicit in the Reformation frightened him, and he had good cause for this, as German nationalism was the second great movement to attach itself to the Reformation, just as Bohemian nationalism had previously attached itself to the cause of the Hussites. Germany was retarded in the process of national unification as compared with Spain, France, England and even Bohemia. Germany had no centralised government and no obvious capital city. The Holy Roman Empire no more than approximated a German national state because it was at once too large, since any European prince was eligible for the highest office, and too small, because of the dominance of the Habsburg dynasty and, by 1519, their huge European and overseas empire.


Germany was segmented into small and overlapping jurisdictions of princes and bishops. The free cities became entangled in shifting alliances with the territories as well as, for trading purposes, with the Hanseatic League. The knights were a restive class seeking to arrest the waning of their power, and the peasants were likewise restive because they wanted to have a political role commensurate with their economic importance. No government and no class was able to weld Germany into one. Dismembered and retarded, she was derided by the Italians and treated by the papacy as a private cow. Resentment against Rome was more intense than in countries where national governments curbed papal exploitation. The representatives of German nationalism who for several years in some measure affected Luther’s career were Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen. Hutten was himself both a knight and a Humanist. He illustrates the diversity of Humanism, which could at once be internationalist in Erasmus, and nationalist in him.

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Hutten did much to create the concept of German nationalism and to construct the picture of the ideal German, who should repel the enemies of the fatherland and erect a culture able to vie with the Italian culture. In the opening stages of Luther’s skirmishes with Eck at Leipzig, Hutten looked on the controversy as a squabble between monks, but he soon realised that Luther’s words had a ring of his own about them. Luther, too, resented the fleecing of Germany, Italian chicanery and duplicity. Luther wished that St Peter’s might lie in ashes rather than that Germany should be despoiled. Hutten’s picture of the Romantic German could be enriched by Luther’s concept of a mystical depth in the German soul exceeding that of other peoples.


In August 1520 Luther intimated that, due to the promises of support he had received from Hutten and Sickingen, including an offer to ride to his aid with a hundred knights, he would attack the papacy as Antichrist. He also wanted the curia to know that, if by their fulminations he was exiled from Saxony, he would not go to Bohemia, but would find asylum in Germany itself, where he might be more obnoxious than he would be under the surveillance of the prince and fully occupied with his teaching duties. While the assurance of protection from the German knights undoubtedly emboldened him, the source of his courage was not to be found in a sense of immunity. As Roland Bainton has pointed out, the most intrepid revolutionary is the one who has a fear greater than anything his opponents can inflict upon him. Luther, who had trembled before the face of God, had no fear before the face of man. It was at this point, in August 1520, that Luther penned his tract, The Address to the German Nobility, one of several that he wrote during the summer months of that year.


Franz von Sickengen’s castle, where Hutten also established himself during

the ‘warless winter’ of 1519-20.

The poet laureate read to the illiterate knights from Luther’s German works.

(to be continued…)

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Revolutionary Violence, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1349-1452: Part One   Leave a comment

Part One: Emperors, Flagellants and Lollards


Central-Eastern Europe in 1382 showing the Ottoman Advance

By the middle of the fourteenth century, quite apart from the Ottoman threat in the Byzantine Empire, the rest of Europe was in a period of crisis. The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague which devastated Europe from 1346 to 1353, killing at least twenty million out of a population of about eighty million. Further outbreaks later in the century prevented new population growth. This helped to exacerbate social and economic tensions: the socio-economic system of the “High Middle Ages” broke down, helping to cause a wave of both rural and urban disorder. There was a sense of crisis in the Church, too: the transfer of the papacy to Avignon (1305-77) and the Great Schism (1378-1417) in western Christendom between areas owing allegiance to rival popes in Rome and Avignon challenged patterns of authority and obedience, contributing to a sense of fragmentation.


Above: The courtyard of the papal palace at Avignon,

built during the ‘Avignon Captivity’ of the popes.

In the course of the fourteenth century all the eschatological hopes which the medieval masses had ever managed to squeeze out of the early Christian apocalyptic prophecies became concentrated in Germany on the future resurrection of Frederick II. Thirty-four years after his death, the Holy Roman Emperor underwent a resurrection very similar to that which had once befallen Baldwin, Count of Flanders and, briefly, Byzantine Emperor. Under the year 1284, a chronicler wrote of a former hermit near Worms who, claiming to be the Emperor, had been escorted into Lübeck amidst great popular enthusiasm. By then, Frederick had taken his place in the line of King Arthur, Charlemagne and Baldwin as a Sleeping Emperor who would one day return as saviour, this time of the German people. The fake Frederick gained some support among the princes who wanted to embarrass Rudolf, the first Habsburg who had been elected German king in 1273. But he was eventually burnt at the stake in the town of Wetzlar.

But the execution served only to increase the reputation of the Emperor as a superhuman and immortal being. It was reported that amongst the ashes at the stake no bones had been found, but only a little bean, which people at once concluded must mean that the Emperor had been rescued from the flames by divine providence, that he was still alive, and that he must one day return. This conviction persisted for generation after generation, so that in the middle of the fourteenth century it was still being claimed that Frederick must return, for such was God’s unalterable decree. It was also claimed that Prester John, the fabulous oriental monarch, had provided the Emperor with an asbestos robe, a magic ring which enabled him to disappear and a magic drink which kept him forever young. The Emperor would often appear to peasants in the guise of a pilgrim, confiding in them that the time would yet come when he would take his rightful place at the head of the Empire. One chronicler recorded how,

In all countries a hard time sets in. A feud flares up between the two heads of Christendom, a fierce struggle begins. Many a mother must mourn her child, men and women alike must suffer. Rapine and arson go hand in hand, everyone is at everyone else’s throat, everyone harms everyone else in his person and his belongings, there is nobody but has cause to lament. But when suffering has reached such a pitch that no-one can allay it, then there appears by God’s will the Emperor Frederick, so noble and so gentle… Full of courage, men and women at once stream together for the journey overseas. The Kingdom of God is promised to them. They come in crowds, each hurrying ahead of the other… peace reigns in all the land, fortresses threaten no longer, there is no need to fear force any more. Nobody opposes the crusade to the withered tree. When the Emperor hangs his shield upon it, the tree puts forth leaf and blossom. The Holy Sepulcre is freed, from now on no sword need be drawn on its behalf. The noble Emperor restores the same law for all men… All heathen realms do homage to the Emperor. He overthrows the power of the Jews, though not by force of arms; their might is broken for ever and they submit without a struggle. Of the domination of the clergy almost nothing remains. The high-born prince dissolves the monasteries altogether, he gives the nuns to be wedded; I tell you, they must grow wine and corn for us!


By the middle of the fourteenth century, Germany had become what it was to remain down to the sixteenth century; a mass of warring principalities, a perpetual chaos in the midst of which the Emperor was altogether helpless. At the same time, the towns of southern and central Germany had replaced the towns of the Low Countries as the main centres of mercantile capitalism north of the Alps, and the social conflicts within them had reached a fierce intensity. While the prosperous guilds fought the patricians and one another, amongst the poor there smouldered a deadly hatred of all the rich. One chronicler from Magdeburg warned the well-to-do burghers that…

… one must not let the common people have their way too much, as has been done of late. They should be kept firmly under control; for there is an old hatred between rich and poor. The poor hate everyone with any possessions and are more ready to harm the rich than the rich are to harm the poor.

The point of view of the poor now found in German literature an expression as violent as it had found a century earlier in French. The poet Suchenwirt, for instance, described how hungry men, leaving their pale and emaciated wives and children in their hovels, crowd together in the narrow streets, armed with improvised weapons and full of desperate courage:

The coffers of the rich are full, those of the poor are empty. The poor man’s belly is hollow… Hack down the rich man’s door! We’re going to dine with him. It’s better to be cut down, all of us, than die of hunger, we’d rather risk our lives bravely than perish in this way…

It was to be expected that in such a society the future Frederick would take on ever more clearly the aspect of the great social revolutionary, the Messiah and the poor. In 1348, the prophecies of the Swabian preachers of a century before recurred in a still more emphatic form in the popular expectations noted by the monk John of Winterthur:

As soon as he has risen from the dead and stands once more at the height of his power, he will marry poor women and maidens to rich men, and ‘vice versa’… He will see to it that everything that has been stolen from minors and orphans and widows is returned to them, and that full justice is done to everyone… he will persecute the clergy so fiercely that if they have no other means of hiding their tonsures they will cover them with cow-dung…

In his text, John of Winterthur disassociated himself from these disturbing beliefs. It was, he remarked, sheer madness to suppose that the Emperor-heretic could ever return; it was contrary to the Catholic faith that a man who had been burnt at the stake could ever again wield sovereign power. The ‘dogma’ of the Second Coming of Frederick was indeed regarded as a dangerous heresy. As another chronicler wrote in 1434,

From the Emperor Frederick, the heretic, a new heresy arose which some Christians still hold to in secret; they believe absolutely that the Emperor Frederick is still alive and will remain alive until the end of the world, and that there has been and shall be no proper Emperor but he… The Devil invented this folly, so as to mislead these heretics and certain simple folk…

How seriously the clergy took this heresy and how alert they were to detect it is shown by the curious story of a Greek philosopher who ventured to divulge in Rome the conviction which he had derived from a long study of the Greek Sibylline, which was that the Last Emperor would shortly be converting all people to Christianity. In this, as in other Byzantine prophecies, the coming of the Last Emperor in no way implied a massacre of the Jews, the clergy or the rich, but this was so inconceivable to the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome that they imprisoned the Greek and confiscated his belongings.

This period from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century witnessed a considerable decline in the authority of the papacy. At the same time, there was a rise in various dissident religious movements. One such movement which was particularly bizarre was that of the Flagellants, with their practice of whipping themselves. There were other lesser groups which fell outside the lines of orthodoxy, for example, the Brothers of the Free Spirit. 

The two most troublesome movements for wholesale reform from within the Church were those initiated by John Wyclif in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia. They went as far as to attack the very foundations of the medieval hierarchy, including the papacy. However, they did so still, mostly, by using the language of the Church, Latin. The attacks on the Church came not only in the sophisticated writings of theologians, however, but more and more in the vernacular languages. Much of the literature in these languages, written in the later medieval centuries, reveals the popular discontent with the condition of the church and the papacy. Examples occur in the anti-clerical attacks in the writings of Boccaccio, as well as in the condemnation of church wealth by the English poet Langland. His compatriot Geoffrey Chaucer also shows no love for the materialism of the church in fourteenth-century England. Everywhere more and more men began to question the basic tenets of the church.

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The revolutionary flagellant movement of the mid-fourteenth century also spread to most areas of the Low Countries and all over Germany, and ended as a militant and bloodthirsty pursuit of the Millennium. As it turned into a messianic mass movement, its behaviour came to resemble that of its forerunner, the People’s Crusades. The German flagellants, in particular, ended as uncompromising enemies of the Church who not only condemned the clergy but utterly repudiated the clergy’s claim to supernatural authority. They denied that the sacrament of the Eucharist had any meaning, and when the host was elevated they refused to show it reverence. They interrupted church services, setting themselves above not only the clergy but also the Pope. They argued that while clerics could only point to the Bible and to tradition as sources of authority, they themselves had been taught directly by the Holy Spirit which had sent them out across the world. They refused to accept criticism from any cleric, but like the ‘Master of Hungary’, they declared that any priest who contradicted them should be dragged from his pulpit and burnt at the stake. At times, the flagellants would urge the populace on to stone the clergy. A French chronicler wrote that the movement aimed at utterly destroying the Church, expropriating its wealth and killing all the clergy.

As usual, the Jews suffered along with the clergy, and on a far greater scale. Following the massacres of the First Crusade (1096-99), the Jews were banished from England in 1290, from France in 1306, 1322 and finally in 1394. Increasingly, the Jews were given the choice of accepting Christianity, banishment or massacre. In the great massacre of European Jewry which accompanied the Black Death, the greatest before the twentieth century, the flagellants played important roles. The first killings were carried out spontaneously by a populace convinced that the Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. they had come to an end by March 1349, perhaps because by that time people had recognised that among the Jews there were just as many victims of the plague as there were among Christians and that neither were the areas spared where all the Jews had been killed. Four months later the second wave of massacres was launched by the propaganda of the flagellants. Wherever the authorities had so far protected the Jews, these hordes now demanded their massacre. When, in July 1349, flagellants entered Frankfurt, they rushed straight to the Jewish quarter, where the townsfolk joined them in exterminating the whole community. The town authorities were so perturbed by the incident that they drove the penitents from the town and reinforced the gates to prevent their return.


A month later massacres took place simultaneously at Mainz and Cologne. During a flagellant ceremony at Mainz, the crowd of spectators suddenly ran amok and fell upon the Jews, with the result that the largest Jewish community in Germany was annihilated. At Cologne, a flagellant band which had for some time been encamped outside the city entered its gates and collected a great crowd of ‘those who had nothing to lose.’ They ignored the town councillors and the rich burghers and attacked the Jews, killing many of them. In Brussels too it was the combination of the rumours of well-poisoning and the role of the flagellants which launched the massacre of the whole community of six hundred Jews, despite the efforts of the Duke of Brabant to stop the slaughter. Through large areas of the Low Countries the flagellants, aided by the poor, burnt and drowned all the Jews they could find because they thought to please God in that way.

The sources are few and it is impossible to say how many massacres were led or instigated by the flagellants during the second half of 1349, but they must have been numerous. The Jews themselves came to regard the flagellants as their worst enemies. The Pope gave as one of his chief complaints against them that…

… most of them or their followers, beneath an appearance of piety, set their hands to cruel and impious works, shedding the blood of the Jews, whom Christian piety accepts and sustains…

By the time the flagellants had finished their ‘works’, which the panic of 1348 had begun, there were very few Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries. The 1348-49 massacres completed the deterioration in the position of European Jewry which had begun in 1096. Throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages the Jewish communities in Germany remained small, poor and, of course, condemned to the segregation of the ghetto. In Spain, the massacres of 1391 led many Marranos to accept Christianity, though often only nominally. The Inquisition investigated with its horrors the genuineness of their faith.


Above: An illustration of the Eve of Passover service at a Jewish synagogue in

fourteenth-century Spain.

It was in the turbulent years around 1380 that the new social myth of a ‘Golden Age’ came into being in Europe. People ceased to think of a society without distinctions of status as being irrecoverably lost in the dim and distant mists of past time and began to think of it instead as preordained for the future, even the near or immediate future. Perhaps it first took place in the towns of Flanders and northern France, which had been swept up throughout the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century in waves of insurrectionary violence. Yet when we examine the chronicles dealing with the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the preaching attributed to John Ball, the myth is found, unmistakably, bubbling away just below the surface. In a celebrated passage, Froissart gives us what is supposed to be a typical sermon of the leader:

And if we are all descended from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, how can the lords say or prove that they are more lords than we are, save that they make us dig and till the ground so that they can squander what we produce? They are clad in velvet and satin, set off with squirrel fur, while we are dressed in poor cloth. They have wines and spices and fine bread, and we have only rye and spoilt flour and straw, and only water to drink. They have beautiful residences and manors, while we have the trouble and the work, always in the fields under rain and snow. But it is from us and our labour that everything comes with which they maintain their pomp.

For this unequal state of affairs, the preacher prescribes a drastic remedy:

Good folk, things cannot go well in England nor ever shall until all things are in common and there is neither villein nor noble, but all of us are of one condition


The villeins’ determination to be free men was the main cause of the the revolt. Since the twelfth century they had been able to gain their freedom by paying money to the lord instead of giving personal service. In some counties, like Suffolk, perhaps as many as half the peasants were free men by the mid-fourteenth century. The landlords, sitting in Parliament had agreed to the Statute of Labourers in 1351, reducing wages which had increased since the Black Death had wiped out a third of the population between 1348 and 1349, which in turn had led to a great shortage of labour. As both landlords and labourers broke the new law, however, it was difficult to force wages down, so the landlords began to refuse to make more villeins in order to ‘tie’ more of the peasants to their land. The landlords also began to let more of their land to their tenants, increasing the money rents for it. In some places they also found it more profitable to change arable land into sheep pasture, requiring fewer labourers and producing greater profits from the sale of wool. Many peasants were forced to give up their land and became labourers.

Peasant risings also broke out in France, but resulted in few changes to the feudal system, since most of them were local in character, based on abuses of the system by landlords. The Revolt in England was regional in character, but national in focus with the aim of radical reform of the system. In fact, by the middle of the fifteenth century in England, villeinage was fast disappearing in England as landlords were ready to exchange service for a payment and set the villeins free. Nevertheless, the immediate cause or catalyst of the 1381 Revolt was the imposition of an unfair tax, the poll tax, which resulted from the mismanagement of the wars with France. The Revolt was put down with great severity, and the peasants failed to get any of their demands. When the rebels had dispersed, Ball was taken prisoner at Coventry, given a trial in which, unlike most, he was permitted to speak. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at St Alban’s in the presence of King Richard II on 15 July 1381. His head was displayed stuck on a pike on London Bridge, and the quarters of his body were displayed in four different towns. The English chronicler Thomas Walsingham, the monk of St Alban’s, also gave a report of the sermon which Ball is said to have preached to the rebel host at Blackheath on a text which has remained famous to this day and was already, then, a well-known proverb:

When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?

From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler rebels from ca 1470 MS of Froissart Chronicles in BL.jpg

Above: Medieval drawing of John Ball preaching to the rebels at Blackheath.

According to Walsingham, Ball’s argument was that in the beginning all human beings had been created free and equal. It was evil men who, by unjust oppression, had first introduced serfdom, against the will of God. The common people could cast off the yoke they had borne so long and thereby win the freedom they had always yearned for. Therefore they should be of good heart and conduct themselves like the wise husbandman in the Scriptures who gathered the wheat into the barn, but uprooted and burnt the tares which had almost choked the good grain; for harvest-time had come. The tares were the great lords, the judges and the lawyers, all of whom must be exterminated, and so must everyone else who might be dangerous to the community in the future. Once they had been dealt with, all remaining men would enjoy equal freedom, rank and power.

Above: From William Morris’ Dream of John Ball (1888).

In more academic guise, this doctrine of the primal egalitarian State of Nature had been mooted by John Wyclif (1329-84), the Morning Star of the Reformation in his Latin treatise De civili dominio, which he composed in Oxford in 1374. He argued that it for the unrighteous to hold lordship was mere usurpation, contrary to the first principles of law and incompatible with the divine purpose; whereas the righteous man, who renounced lordship for the sake of obedience to Christ, obtained in return complete lordship over the whole universe, such as had not been enjoyed since our first parents and the Fall. Wyclif went on to produce his own variation on the theory of man’s original egalitarian state of grace:

Firstly, that all good things of God ought to be in common. The proof of this is as follows: Every man ought to be in a state of grace; if he in a state of grace he is lord of the world and all that it contains; therefore every man ought to be lord of the whole world. But, because of the multitudes of men, this will not happen unless they all hold all things in common: therefore all things ought to be in common. 


Of course, Wyclif never intended this theory to be applied in practice to secular society, himself adding that in practical life the righteous must acquiesce in inequalities and injustices and leave the unrighteous in possession of their wealth and power. If in his attacks on the wealth and worldliness of the clergy Wyclif was in deadly earnest, these comments of his on the communal ownership of all things were little more than an exercise in formal logic. Nevertheless, when abstracted from their scholastic context and stripped of their qualifying clauses those same comments appear to be socially radical. Wyclif was in a position to speak truth to power as John of Gaunt had invited him to serve at the court of Richard II. Wyclif offended the church by backing the right of the state to seize the property of corrupt clergymen. His views were condemned by the pope in 1377, but Wyclif’s influential friends protected him.Wyclif pushed his anti-clerical views further, and began to attack some of the central doctrines of the medieval church, including ‘transubstantiation’. He also claimed that since the church consisted of God’s chosen people, they did not need a priest to mediate for them.

However, it would be surprising if, among his ‘congregations’ at Oxford, there had been none who snatched at such radical social ideas and scattered them abroad, simplified into propaganda slogans. He attracted support by his energetic teaching and preaching. Wyclif was gradually deserted by his friends in high places and the church authorities forced him and his friends out of Oxford. In 1382, he went to live in Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he died in 1384. Some of his followers had gone there with him and continued his mission after his death. It has been suggested that John Ball had been one of his poor itinerant priests, or ‘Lollards’, whom he had sent out to share the gospels in his newly translated text from Latin into English. By 1395 they had developed into an organised group, with their own ministers enjoying widespread popular support.


The Lollards stood for many of the ideas set out by Wyclif. In particular, they believed that the main task of a priest was to preach and that the Bible should be available to everyone in his own language. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Lollards were suppressed, particularly when their protest became linked with social and political unrest. But Lollardy continued to thrive in some parts of England, thus preparing the way for the spread of Lutheranism to England in the next century.

For the fifteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth in Germany, the myth of the future Frederick no longer has to be pieced together from occasional reports from hostile chroniclers. At this point, it emerges into full daylight, in the form of detailed manifestos. The earliest of these works, the Latin tract known as Gamaleon, probably produced either in 1409, tells of a future German Emperor who is to overthrow the French monarchy and the Papacy. When he has accomplished his mission France will be remembered no more, the Hungarians and Slavs will have been subjugated and reduced to complete dependence, Jewry will have been crushed forever; while the Germans will be exalted above all peoples. The Church of Rome will have been expropriated and all its clergy killed. In place of the Pope a German patriarch will preside from Mainz over a new church, but a church subordinate to the Emperor, the eagle from the eagle’s race, a new Frederick whose wings will stretch from sea to sea and to the very limits of the earth. Those will be the Last Days, followed by the Second Coming and the Judgement.

In about 1439 a far more influential work was produced, the so-called Reformation of Sigismund. Its origin lay in a Latin manifesto prepared by a priest called Frederick of Lantnaw for submission to the General Council of Basle, which had been struggling to achieve reform in the Church since 1431. It was far more than a translation of this manifesto into German, however. The tract deals with the reform of the Empire as fully as it does that of the Church. Its author was clearly familiar with the conditions of life in the towns of southern Germany and sets out his stall as the spokesman above all of the urban poor, not the skilled artisans in the guilds but the unorganised workers, the poorest and least privileged stratum of the urban population. The Reformation of Sigismund demands the suppression of the monopolistic guilds and the great trading companies. It advocates an egalitarian order in which wages, prices and taxes will be fixed to serve the interests of the poor. Wherever serfdom still survives it must be abolished and towns must allow former serfs to immigrate.


Portrait of Sigismund of Luxemburg, by Pisanello

The book is inspired almost throughout by an empirical rather than a millenarian approach. It ends, however, with a curious messianic prophecy which the author puts into the mouth of Emperor Sigismund. He had only recently died after being himself for some years a subject of messianic expectations. Sigismund had been the longest-reigning medieval monarch of Hungary (1387-1437) was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1433, an event which marked the establishment of the great central-European empire which existed, under Habsburg rule, until 1918. His son-in-law, Albert Habsburg, was the first of that name to sit on the Hungarian throne (1437-39). Even before he became Emperor, Sigismund played a major role in European political affairs since, in addition to his extensive Hungarian crown lands, which included Croatia, he also ruled over Germany (from 1411) and Bohemia (1419).


In 1396 Sigismund led the combined armies of Christendom, comprising a legion of knights from all over Europe, against the advancing Turks, who had taken advantage of the temporary helplessness of Hungary to extend their dominion to the banks of the Danube. This crusade, preached by Pope Boniface IX, was very popular in Hungary. The nobles flocked in the thousands to the royal standard and were reinforced by volunteers from nearly every part of Europe, the most important contingent being that of the French led by John the Fearless, son of Philip II, Duke of Burgundy. Sigismund set out with 90,000 men and a flotilla of 70 galleys. After capturing Vidin, he camped with his Hungarian armies before the fortress of Nicopolis. Sultan Bayezid I raised the siege of Constantinople and, at the head of 140,000 men, completely defeated the Christian forces in the Battle of Nicopolis fought between the 25 and 28 September 1396.

The disaster in Nicopolis angered several Hungarian lords, leading to instability in the kingdom. Deprived of his authority in Hungary, Sigismund then turned his attention to securing the succession in Germany and Bohemia, where his childless half-brother Wenceslaus IV recognised him as Vicar-General of the whole Empire. However, he was unable to support Wenceslaus when he was deposed in 1400, and Rupert of Germany, Elector Palatine, was elected German king in his stead. After the death of King Rupert in 1410, Sigismund – ignoring the claims of his half-brother Wenceslaus – was elected as successor by three of the electors on 10 September 1410, but he was opposed by his cousin Jobst of Moravia, who had been elected by four electors in a different election on 1 October. Jobst’s death 18 January 1411 removed this conflict and Sigismund was again elected as King of Germany on 21 July 1411. His coronation was deferred until 8 November 1414, when it took place at Aachen.


Right: The growth of Luxemburg power to 1387

As the King of Germany, he now took advantage of the difficulties of Antipope John XXIII to obtain a promise that a council should be called in Constance in 1414 to settle the Western Schism. He took a leading part in the deliberations of this assembly, and during the sittings made a journey to France, England and Burgundy in a vain attempt to secure the abdication of the three rival popes. The council finally ended in 1418, solving the Schism.

The Council created another problem for Sigismund, however, by having the Czech religious reformer, Jan Hus, burned at the stake for heresy in July 1415. This turned out to be of great consequence for Sigismund’s future career as it was an act which touched off the fifteen-year-long Hussite War.  It is thought that Sigismund’s sister, Anne of Bohemia (1366-94), who married Richard II of England, was instrumental in bringing the ideas of John Wycliffe to Bohemia, thus influencing Hus and his followers. The students of Prague had been going in great numbers to Oxford since the marriage between the two Angevin dynasties in 1382. Although Wyclif was forced to leave Oxford that same year and died in Lutterworth two years later, his teachings were still flourishing in the hands of his followers, the Lollards. Anne died of the plague in  1394, but the interest shown by Sigismund in English events persisted throughout his life.

(to be continued… )


The Mission of the ‘Pauperes’ in the People’s Crusades, c. 1270 – 1320: Eliminating Disbelief.   Leave a comment


France & Spain, c. 1270

Christendom and European Jewry:

The pauperes who took part in the People’s Crusades saw their victims as well as their leaders in terms of the eschatology out of which they had made their social myth. In a sense, the idea of a wholly Christian world was as old as Christianity itself. Yet, because of this idea, Christianity has remained a missionary religion which has insisted that the gospel, or ‘good news’ of Christ the Redeemer, must be shared with the whole of humanity before the ‘End Times’ and that the elimination of disbelief must be achieved through conversion of the disbelievers. The messianic hordes which began to form in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, saw no reason at all why that elimination could not equally well be achieved by the physical annihilation of the unconverted. In the Chanson de Roland, the famous epic which is the most impressive embodiment of the spirit of the First Crusade, this new attitude is expressed quite unambiguously:

The Emperor has taken Saragossa. A thousand Francs are sent to search thoroughly the town, the mosques and synagogues. With iron hammers and axes they smash the images and all the idols; henceforth there will be no place there for spells or sorcerers. The King believes in God, he desires to serve him. His bishops bless the water and the heathen are brought to the baptistry. If any one of them resists Charlemagne, the King has him hanged or burnt to death or slain with the sword.

In the eyes of the pauperes, the smiting of the Muslims and the Jews was to be the first act in that final battle which, as had been already revealed in the eschatological literature of the Jews and early Christians, was to culminate in the smiting of the Prince of Evil himself. Above these desperate hordes, as they moved about their work of massacre, there loomed large the figure of the Antichrist, who at any moment may set up his throne in the Temple at Jerusalem: even amongst the higher clergy, there were those who spoke in these terms. Though these fantasies had little to do with the political priorities of Pope Urban, they were even attributed to him by chroniclers struggling to describe the atmosphere in which the First Crusade was launched. It is the will of God, Urban is made to announce at Clermont, that through the labours of the crusaders, Christianity shall flourish again in Jerusalem in these last times, so that when Antichrist begins his reign there, he will find enough Christians to fight. 

As the infidels were allotted their roles in the eschatological drama, popular imagination transformed them into demons. In the dark days of the ninth century, when Christendom was clearly gravely threatened by the advance of Islam, a few clerics had sadly decided that Mohammed must have been the ‘precursor’ of a Saracen Antichrist and saw in Muslims, in general, the ‘ministers’ of Antichrist. As Christendom launched its counter-offensive against an Islam which was already in retreat, popular epics portrayed Muslims as monsters with two sets of horns (front and back) and called them devils with no right to live. But if the Saracen, and his successor the Turk, retained in popular imagination a certain demonic quality, the Jew was an even more horrifying figure. Jews and Saracens were generally regarded as closely akin, if not identical; but since the Jews lived scattered throughout Christian Europe, they came to occupy by far the larger part in popular demonology. Moreover, they occupied it for much longer, with consequences which have extended down the generations and which include the massacre of more than six million of European Jews in the mid-twentieth century.

By the time they began to take on demonic attributes the Jews were far from being newcomers to western Europe. Following the disastrous struggle against Rome and the destruction of the Jewish nation in Palestine, mass emigrations and deportations had carried great numbers of Jews to France and the Rhine Valley. Although they did not attain the same level of cultural eminence and political influence there as they did in Muslim-dominated Spain, their lives in the early Middle Ages were not difficult. From the Carolingian period onwards there were Jewish merchants travelling to and fro between Europe and the Near East with luxury goods such as spices, incense and carved ivory; and there were also many Jewish artisans. There is no evidence to suggest that, after the tribulations of both communities under the Romans in the first and early second centuries, the Jews were regarded by their Christian neighbours with any particular hatred or dread. On the contrary, social and economic relations between Jews and Christians were harmonious, personal friendships and commercial partnerships between them not uncommon. Culturally, the Jews went a long way in adapting themselves to the various countries they inhabited. Yet they remained Jews, refusing to be assimilated into the populations amongst which they lived.

This refusal to be assimilated, which has been repeated by so many generations since the first dispersals began under the Assyrian Empire in the sixth century BC is quite a unique phenomenon in history. Save to some extent for the Gipsies and perhaps peoples of ‘Celtic’ origin, there seems to have been no other people who, scattered far and wide over a long period of time, possessing neither a nation nor territory of its own, nor even any great ethnic homogeneity, has yet persisted indefinitely as a cultural entity and identity. The solution to this ethnographic puzzle is most likely to be found in its religion which not only, like Christianity and Islam, taught its followers to regard themselves as the Chosen People of a single omnipotent God, but also taught them to regard the most overwhelming persecutions – defeat, destruction, desecration, dispersal – not just as immediate signs of divine displeasure for sinfulness, but also as guarantees of future communal bliss.

What made the Jews remain Jews was, it seems, their absolute conviction that the Diaspora was but a preliminary expiation of communal sin, a preparation for the coming of the Messiah and the return to a transfigured Holy Land, albeit belonging to a remote and indefinite future, given the destruction of the Jewish state. For the very purpose of ensuring the survival of the Jewish religion, a body of ritual was developed which effectively prevented Jews from mixing with other people. Intermarriage with non-Jews was prohibited, eating with non-Jews made very difficult, and it was even an offence to read a non-Jewish book.

These circumstances help to explain how European Jewry persisted through so many centuries of dispersal as a clearly recognisable community, bound together by an intense feeling of solidarity, somewhat aloof in its attitude to outsiders and jealously clinging to the taboos which had been designed for the very purpose of emphasising and perpetuating its exclusiveness. Nevertheless, this self-preservative, self-isolating tendency cannot begin to account for the peculiarly intense and unremitting hatred which has been repeatedly and almost continuously directed against the Jewish people more than against any other ethnic group. What accounts for that is the wholly fantastic, stereotypical image of the Jew which suddenly gripped the imagination of the new masses at the time of the first crusades.

The Eschatology of the Medieval Church:

Official Catholic teaching had prepared the way. The Church had never ceased to carry on a vigorous polemic against Judaism. For generations, the laity had been accustomed to hearing the Jews bitterly condemned from the pulpit as perverse, stubborn and ungrateful because they refused to admit the divinity of Christ, as bearers also of a monstrous hereditary guilt for the murder of Christ. Moreover, the eschatological tradition within Christianity had long associated the Jews with the Antichrist himself. Already in the second and third centuries theologians were foretelling that the Antichrist would be a Jew of the tribe of Dan. This idea became such a commonplace that in the Middle Ages it was accepted by scholars such as Thomas Aquinas. Antichrist, it was claimed, would be born in Babylon, would grow up in Palestine and would love the Jews above all peoples. He would return to the Temple for them and gather them together from their dispersion. The Jews for their part would be the most faithful followers of Antichrist, accepting him as the Messiah who was to restore the nation.

If some theologians looked forward to a general conversion of the Jews, most maintained that their blindness would endure to the end and that at the Last Judgement they would be sent, along with the Antichrist himself, to suffer the torments of hell for all eternity.  In the stock Antichrist-lore produced in the tenth century, the Jew of the tribe of Dan became still more sinister. He would be the offspring of a harlot, whose womb would be entered by the Devil in spirit form, thereby ensuring that the child would be the very incarnation of Evil. Later, his education in Palestine would be carried out by sorcerers and magicians, who will initiate him into the black art and all iniquity.

When the old eschatological prophecies were taken up by the masses of the later Middle Ages all these fantasies were treated with deadly seriousness and woven into an elaborate mythology. Just as the human figure of Antichrist tended to merge into the wholly demonic figure of Satan, so the Jews tended to metamorphose into the demons attendant on Satan. In drama and picture, they were often shown as devils with the beard and horns of a goat, while in real life ecclesiastical and secular authorities alike tried to make them wear horns on their hats. Conversely, Satan himself was often portrayed with ‘Jewish features’ and was referred to as ‘the father of the Jews’. The Christian populace was convinced that the Jews worshipped Satan in the synagogue in the form of an animal, invoking his aid in making black magic. Jews were thought of as demons of destruction whose one object was the ruin of Christendom, dyables d’enfer, ennemys du genre humain, as they were known in French miracle-plays.

It was believed that in preparation for the final struggle Jews held secret, grotesque tournaments at which, as soldiers of the Antichrist, they practised stabbing. Even the ten lost tribes of Israel, whom Commodianus had seen as the future army of Christ, became identified with those hosts of the Antichrist, the peoples of Gog and Magog, described as living off human flesh, corpses, babes ripped from their mothers’ wombs and all the most disgusting reptiles. Dramas were written in which Jewish demons were shown as helping Antichrist to conquer the world until, on the eve of the Second Coming and the beginning of the Millennium, the Antichrist and the Jews would be annihilated together amidst the rejoicing of the Christians. During the performances of such dramas armed force was needed to protect the Jewish quarter from the fury of the mob. Popes and Councils might insist that, although the Jews ought to be segregated and degraded until the day of their conversion, they must certainly not be killed, but these imprecations made little impact on the turbulent masses already embarked, as they thought, on the prodigious struggles of the Last Days.

Trade, Money-lending and Usury:


Hatred of Jews has too often been attributed to their role as money-lenders, so it is worth emphasising how slight the connection really was. The fantasy of the demonic Jew existed before the reality of the Jewish money-lender, whom it helped to produce. As, in the age of the crusades, religious intolerance became more and more intense, so too the economic situation of the Jews rapidly deteriorated. At the Lateran Council of 1215, it was ruled that Jews should be debarred from all civil and military functions and from owning land; these decisions were incorporated into Canon Law. As merchants too the Jews were at an even greater disadvantage, since they were unable to travel without risk of being murdered. Besides, Christians themselves began to turn to commerce and they very quickly outstripped the Jews, who were debarred from the Hanseatic League and could not compete with the Italian and Flemish cities.  For richer Jews, money-lending was the one field of economic activity which remained open to them. As money-lenders, they could remain in their homes, without undertaking dangerous journeys; and by keeping their wealth in a fluid state they might, in an emergency, be able to flee without losing it all.  Moreover, in the rapidly expanding economy of western Europe, there was a constant and urgent demand for credit. The lending of money at interest, stigmatised as ‘usury’, was forbidden to Christians by Canon Law. The Jews were, of course, not subject to this prohibition, and were therefore encouraged and even compelled by the authorities to lend their money against securities and were commended for carrying out this necessary function.


Jewish money-lending was, however, of transitory importance in medieval economic life. As mercantile capitalism developed, Christians began to ignore the canonical ban on money-lending. Already by the middle of the twelfth century, the merchant bankers of the Low Countries were making large loans at interest and the Italians were expert bankers. The Jews were unable to compete with them, especially because the cities as well as the territorial princes and lords, all taxed them severely, so much so that the Jewish contribution to the royal exchequer was ten times what their numbers warranted. Once again, the Jews found themselves at a huge disadvantage. Although individual Jewish money-lenders were able from time to time to amass considerable fortunes, arbitrary levies soon reduced them to poverty again. In any case, rich Jews were never numerous; most were ‘lower- middle-class’ and many were poorer. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was very little Jewish wealth in northern Europe to share in the prodigious development which followed upon the discovery of the New World.

Some Jews turned from high finance to small-scale money-lending and pawnbroking. Here, there were some grounds for popular hatred. What had once been a flourishing Jewish culture had by that time turned into a terrorised society locked in perpetual warfare with the greater society around it; it can be taken for granted that Jewish money-lenders often reacted to insecurity and persecution by deploying a ruthlessness of their own.  But already, long before that happened, hatred of the Jews had become endemic among the European masses. Even later, when a mob set about killing Jews it never confined itself to the comparatively few money-lenders but killed every Jew it could lay hands on. On the other hand, any Jew, money-lender or not, could escape massacre by submitting to baptism.

The Demonisation and Scapegoating of Jews:

Jews were not the only ones to be killed. The pauper hordes, inspired by the eschatology of the Last Days, soon turned on the clergy as well. Here again, the killing was carried out in the belief that the victims were agents of the Antichrist and Satan whose extermination was a prerequisite for the Millennium. Martin Luther was not the first to hit upon the idea that the Antichrist who sets up his throne in the Temple can be no other than the Pope in Rome and that the Church of Rome was, therefore, the Church of Satan. Even by ‘orthodox’ theologians, as we would now regard Luther, Jews were seen as wicked children  who stubbornly denied the claims and affronted the majesty of God, the Father of all; and in the eyes of sectarians who saw the Pope as Antichrist the clergy too was bound to seem a traitorous brood in rebellion against their father. But the Jew and the cleric could also themselves very easily be seen as father-figures. This is obvious enough in the case of the cleric, who after all is actually called ‘Father’ by the laity. If it is less obvious in the case of the Jew it is nevertheless a fact, for even today the Jew – the man who clings to the Old Testament and rejects the New, the member of the people into which Christ was born, is imagined by many ‘isolated’ Christians as typically, like Fagin in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, as an old Jew, a decrepit figure in old, worn-out clothes.

Integrated into the eschatological fantasy, Jew and cleric alike became father-figures of a most terrifying kind. That monster of destructive rage and phallic power whom Melchior Lorch portrays wearing the triple tiara and carrying the keys and the papal cross was seen by millenarians in every ‘false cleric’. As for the Jews, the belief that they murdered Christian children was so widespread and so firmly held that not all the protests of popes and bishops could ever eradicate it. If we examine the picture of Jews torturing and castrating a helpless and innocent boy (see below), we can appreciate with just how much fear and hate the fantastic figure of the bad father could be regarded. And the other stock accusation brought against the Jews in medieval Europe – of flogging, stabbing and pulverising the host – has a similar significance. For if from the point of view of a Jew an atrocity committed on the host would be meaningless, from the point of view of a medieval Christian it would be a repeat of the torturing and killing of Christ. Here too, then, the wicked (Jewish) father is imagined as assaulting the good son; this interpretation is borne out by the many stories of how, in the middle of the tortured wafer, Christ appeared as a child, dripping blood and screaming.



To these demons in human form, the Jew and the ‘false cleric’ was attributed every quality which belonged to the Beast from the Abyss – not only his cruelty but also his grossness, his animality, his blackness and uncleanliness. Jewry and clergy together were depicted as forming the foul black host of the enemy which stood opposite the clean, white army of the saints, the children of God that we are, the poisonous worms that you are, as a medieval rhymester put it. The saints knew that it was their task to wipe that foul black host off the face of the earth, for only an earth which had been so purified would be fit to carry the New Jerusalem, the shining Kingdom of the Saints.

The European ‘civilization’ of the later Middle Ages was always prone to demonising peripheral communities, but at times of acute disorientation, this tendency became especially marked. Hardship, poverty, distress, wars and famines were so much a part of everyday life that they were taken for granted and could be faced in a sober, stoical manner. But when a situation emerged which was not only menacing but also completely out of the ordinary run of experience, when people were suddenly confronted by hazards which were unfamiliar, unpredictable and uncontrollable, they tended to fly into the fantasy world of demons. If the threat was sufficiently overwhelming and the disorientation widespread and acute, the resulting psychological atmosphere could be one of mass delusion of the most dangerous kind. This is what happened in 1348 when the Black Death reached Europe. It was at once concluded that some group of people must have poisoned the water supply. As the plague continued to spread, people became more bewildered and desperate, and they began to look for a ‘scapegoat’. Suspicion fell first on the lepers, then the poor, the rich and the clergy, before the blame finally came to rest on the Jews, who were thereupon almost exterminated.

The People’s Crusade of 1320: A Trail of Terror…

Set in this context, the last of the People’s Crusades can be seen as a first attempt to usher in a different type of millenarianism which aimed, rather confusedly, at casting down the mighty and raising up the poor. By the first quarter of the fourteenth-century crusading zeal was more than ever a monopoly of the very poor. The Kingdom of Jerusalem had come to an end and Syria had been evacuated; the Papacy had exchanged the mystical aura of Rome for the security of Avignon; political power in each country was passing into the hands of hard-headed bureaucrats. Only the restless masses between the Somme and the Rhine were still stirred by old eschatological fantasies which they now transfused with a bitter truculence. Very little was required to launch these people upon some wholly unrealistic attempt to turn these fantasies into realities. In 1309 Pope Clement V sent an expedition of the Knights Hospitallers to conquer Rhodes as a stronghold against the Turks; the same year saw a very serious famine in Picardy, the Low Countries and along the lower part of the Rhine. The two circumstances taken together were sufficient to provoke another People’s Crusade in that area. Again, armed columns appeared, consisting of miserably poor artisans and labourers with an admixture of nobles who had squandered their wealth. These people begged and pillaged their way through the countryside, killing Jews and also storming castles in which nobles sheltered their valuable sources of revenue. These included the fortress of the Duke of Brabant, who only three years earlier had routed an army of insurgent cloth-workers and, it was reported, had buried its leaders alive. The Duke at once led an army against the crusaders and drove them off with heavy losses.

In 1315 a universal failure of crops was driving the poor to cannibalism and long processions of naked penitents cried to God for mercy. Millenarian hopes flared high and in the midst of the famine a prophecy circulated which foretold that, driven by hunger, the poor would in that same year rise in arms against the rich and powerful and would overthrow the Church and a great monarchy. After much bloodshed, a new age would dawn in which all men would be united in exalting one single Cross. It is not surprising that when in 1320 Philip V of France halfheartedly suggested yet another expedition to the Holy Land the idea was at once taken up by the desperate masses, even though it was wholly impracticable and was rejected out of hand by the Pope. An apostate monk and an unfrocked priest began to preach the crusade in northern France to such good effect that a great movement sprang up as suddenly and unexpectedly as a whirlwind. A large part was also played by prophetae who claimed to be divinely appointed saviours.  Jewish chroniclers, drawing on a lost Spanish source, tell of a shepherd-boy who announced that a dove had appeared to him and, having changed into the Virgin, had hidden him summon a crusade and had promised it victory.

As in the first Crusade of the Pastoureaux in 1251, the first to respond were shepherds and swineherds, some of them mere children. So this movement too became known as a Shepherds’ Crusade. But once again, the genuine crusaders were joined by male and female beggars, outlaws and bandits, so that the resulting army became turbulent. Before long, numbers of Pastoureaux were being arrested and imprisoned; but always the remainder, enthusiastically supported by the general populace, would storm the prison and free their brethren. When they reached Paris these hordes terrified the city, breaking into the Chatalet, assaulting the Provost and finally, on a rumour that armed forces were to be brought out against them, drawing themselves up in battle formation in the fields of St Germain-des-Pés. As no force materialised to oppose them to oppose them they left the capital and marched south until they entered the English territories in the south-west. The Jews had been expelled from the Kingdom of France in 1306 but here they were still to be found; as the Pastoureaux marched they killed Jews and looted their property. The French King sent orders that the Jews should be protected, but the populace, convinced that this massacre was holy work, did everything to help the crusaders. When the governor and the royal officials at Toulouse arrested many Pastoureaux the townsfolk stormed the prison and a great massacre of the Jews followed. At Albi, the consuls closed the gates but the crusaders forced their way in, crying that they had come to kill the Jews, and were greeted by the populace with wild enthusiasm. In other towns, the authorities themselves joined the townsfolk and the crusaders in the massacre. Throughout south-west France, from Bourdeaux in the west to Albi in the east, almost every Jew was killed.


France and Spain, c. 1328

When they reached Avignon, having turned their violence upon the clergy, Pope John XXII excommunicated the Pastoureaux and called upon the Seneschal of Beaucaire to take to the field against them; these measures proved effective. People were forbidden, on pain of death, to give food to them, towns began to close their gates and many of the ‘shepherds’ perished miserably of hunger. Many others were killed in battle at various points between Toulouse and Narbonne, or captured and hanged from trees in twenties and thirties. Pursuits and executions carried on for three months. The survivors split up and crossed the Pyrenees to kill more Jews, which they did until the King of Aragon led a force against them and dispersed them. More than any earlier crusade, this one was felt while it lasted to threaten the whole existing structure of society. The Pastoureaux of 1320 struck terror into the hearts of all the rich and privileged.


András Bereznay (2001), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books.

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millenium. St Alban’s: Granada Books.

The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’: part seven – Apocalyptic Literature and Millenarianism.   Leave a comment


Above: The cover of Norman Cohn’s 1957 ground-breaking, iconic and scholarly work on Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (subtitle), the first chapter of which deals with The Tradition of Apocalyptic Prophecy in Jewish and early Christian literature. The picture shows a detail of Albrecht Altdorfer’s

Battle on the Issus in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

‘The Rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’:

The Book of Revelation is Christian apocalyptic literature, but despite many resemblances to Jewish apocalyptic, it has distinct characteristics of its own. It is not attributed to a figure in the distant past, such as Daniel, nor does it survey past ages in the guise of prediction. It is prophetic in the best sense of the word and is Jewish apocalyptic transfigured by the influence of Christianity. Imminent persecution by Rome is expected in the text, and Revelation was written to strengthen those who would face it. The message is given symbolically, however. Pages are filled with symbols and numbers: swords, eyes, trumpets, horns, seals, crowns, white robes; 7,12, 144,000 people, 1260 days, 42 months, 666: the number of the beast. As a result, it has been searched down the centuries for hidden knowledge of the future. There are two verses in the book which refer to Zion, or Jerusalem, often taken out of context by a variety of Christian eschatological churches and traditions, most of which are found today in the USA, having their origins in the mid-nineteenth century. Appropriately, I hope, the following texts are from The Revised Version of the Bible, published in London, New York and Toronto by the Oxford University Press, in 1880:

Chapter 14 v 1:

And I saw, and behold, “the Lamb sitting on the mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand, having his name and the name of his Father, written on their foreheads.

Chapter 21 v 2:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.

These passages are commonly, though perhaps erroneously, linked with the following passages from elsewhere in the New Testament, concerning what has come to be known as ‘the rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’. The earliest of these to be recorded is in Paul’s first letter to the Church in Thessalonica:

1 Thessalonians 4 v 16 – 5 v 5, Revised Version:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that aught be written unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. When they are saying ‘Peace and safety’, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall in no wise escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief; for ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day; we are not of the night, nor darkness.

Some first-century Christians believed Jesus would return during their lifetime. When the converts of Paul in Thessalonica were persecuted by the Roman Empire, they believed the end of days to be imminent.


The ‘Olivet Discourse’:

The ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, the Messiah, is also related in the minds of some eschatological evangelicals to Jesus’ references to a time of great tribulation in what has become known as ‘The Olivet Discourse’, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, almost verbatim (Mark 13. 1-13; Matthew 24. 1-14; Luke 21. 5-19). According to the narrative of the synoptic Gospels, an anonymous disciple remarks on the greatness of Herod’s Temple, a building thought to have been some 10 stories high and likely to have been adorned with gold, silver, and other precious items. Jesus responds that not one of those stones would remain intact in the building, and the whole thing would be reduced to rubble. This quotation is taken from a twentieth-century translation:

As Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Look teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!” Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down…

Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple, when Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him in private. “Tell us when this will be,” they said, “and tell us what will happen to show that the time has come for all these things to take place. “

Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and don’t let anyone fool you. Many men, claiming to speak for me, will come and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will fool many people. And don’t be troubled when you hear the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away. Such things must happen, but they do not mean that the end has come. Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another. There will be earthquakes everywhere, and there will be famines. These things are like the first pains of childbirth.

You yourselves must watch out. You will be arrested and taken to court. You will be beaten in the synagogues; you will stand before rulers and kings for my sake to tell them the Good News. But before the end comes, the gospel must be preached to all Peoples. And when you are arrested and taken to court, do not worry ahead of time what you are going to say; when the time comes, say whatever is given then to you. For the words you speak will come from the Holy Spirit. Men will hand over their own brothers to be put to death, and fathers will do the same to their children. Children will turn against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But whoever hold out to the end will be saved. (New English Bible).


The disciples, being Jewish, believed that the Messiah would come and that his arrival would mean the fulfilment of all the prophecies they hoped in. They believed that the Temple played a large role in this, hence the disciple in the first part boasting to Jesus about the Temple’s construction. Jesus’ prophecy concerning the Temple’s destruction was contrary to their belief system. Jesus sought to correct that impression, first, by discussing the Roman invasion, and then by commenting on his final coming to render universal judgement. It is unclear whether the tribulation Jesus describes in the rest of this passage is a past, present or future event, in the terms of the gospel authors, but it seems to refer to events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and as such is used to dates of authorship to around the year AD 70.

Nevertheless, many evangelical Christian interpreters say the passages refer to what they call the ‘Last Days’ or ‘the End of Time’. They disagree as to whether Jesus describes the signs that accompany his return. The discourse is widely believed by scholars to contain material delivered by him on a variety of occasions. The setting on the Mount of Olives echoes a passage in the Book of Zechariah which refers to the location as the place where a final battle would occur between the Jewish Messiah and his opponents.


Jesus then warned the disciples about the Abomination of Desolation standing where it does not belong. Later Christians regarded this as a reference to Hadrian’s Temple (see below), built in 135 AD over the site of Jesus’ tomb, but other scholars dispute this. By some accounts, a statue of Venus was placed on the site of Golgotha, or Calvary. Archaeologists have found evidence of an abandoned quarry just outside the original city walls, which was used as a Jewish cemetery. Hadrian’s workers paved it over with stone, including the supposed tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus’ burial.


The Gospels of Matthew and Mark add, let the reader understand, revealing how these passages may have been edited later in order to strengthen this assertion. Matthew makes clear that this is a reference to two passages from the Book of Daniel from the post-exilic eschatological Old Testament literature. Alan T Dale gives a modern rendering of these passages in poetic form, emphasising that this is a quotation by Jesus from the prophets inspired by his ‘view’ of Jerusalem at the time, a great city continually suffering at the hands of evil and violence throughout its history (Luke 21. 20-28), rather than his own prophetic ‘vision’ of its future:

When you see the city besieged by armies,

be sure the last days of the city have come.

Let those inside her walls escape

and those in the villages stay in the villages.

These are the days of punishment,

the words of the Bible are coming true.

There will be great distress among men

and a terrible time for this people.

They will fall at the point of a sword

and be scattered as captives throughout the world.

Foreign soldiers will tramp the city’s streets

until the world really is God’s world.

This was probably not the first time Jesus had remembered these lines during his visits to Jerusalem, as he came to and from the Mount of Olives to the temple and caught sight of the city walls. He was reported by Matthew to have lamented its seemingly eternal fate on at least one other occasion (Mt. 23. 37-39). Jesus then states that immediately after the time of tribulation people would see a sign, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Matt. 24:29–30) (Joel. 3:15). Once again, he is quoting from the Old Testament prophets, so that it is difficult to know whether he is describing a contemporary event or predicting one in a distant future. Joel had already prefaced his description of this event by predicting that this would be a sign before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord (Joel 2. 30-31). While the statements about the sun and moon turning dark sound quite apocalyptic, they are also borrowings from the Book of Isaiah. (Isa. 13. 10).

What Revelation reveals…


Above: Albrecht Dürer, The Day of Wrath, from the Apocalypse series, 1498.

(British Museum)

The Book of Revelation also mentions the sun and moon turning dark during the sixth seal of the seven seals, but the passage adds more detail than the previous verses mentioned. (Rev. 6. 12-17). However, the Book of Revelation should not be read as a kind of secret manual to the End Times, containing a series of cryptic clues which need to be deciphered in order to produce a chronology of eschatological events. It is both pure poetry, and a continuous meditation and commentary on the prophecy of Old Testament, with reading and vision inextricably combined. In fact, it gives a clear demonstration of the need to understand the New Testament in the context of the Old. It may seem strange to those without an understanding of the latter since it seems savage and barbarous to those coming to it without that understanding. It should be viewed as a picture of the situation of the Christian Church in the hostile world of the end of the first century in which the power of Christ’s presence was still at work. It tells us what it was like to be a Christian at that time, and is not about what the world would look like at the end of times. Originally all these prophecies were devices by which religious groups, at first Jewish and later Christian, consoled, fortified and asserted themselves when confronted by the threat or the reality of oppression. It is natural that the earliest of these prophecies should have been produced by the Jews.

The Role of Jerusalem in the Early Church:


It was also natural that Jerusalem should remain the focal point of the church’s unity well into the first century. Jerusalem was not only the Holy City of Judaism, but also the place of the resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, and the headquarters of the early church. In Acts, everything seems to revolve around Jerusalem and the Jerusalem church exercises careful supervision of what goes on elsewhere. It is Jerusalem that sends down envoys to Samaria to approve the actions of Philip (8.14), Jerusalem that sets the seal on the conversion of Cornelius (11.18), Jerusalem that is the scene of the Apostolic Council (15.4) and Jerusalem to which Paul has to return, to his peril, to give account of his missionary journeys. (20.16; 21. 11, 15 ff.). And yet the journey which he was planning when he was planning when he wrote to the Romans was essentially a peace-making mission. When the Jerusalem concordat was made, which dispensed with the need for Gentile converts to undergo circumcision, and released them from most of the demands of the Law, the leaders of the church there had stipulated that the Gentile churches should take some responsibility for the support of the poverty-stricken Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.

Paul responded eagerly to this request (Gal. 2. 10). The leaders in Jerusalem may have had in mind something like an equivalent for the contributions which Jews in the Diaspora made to the temple in Jerusalem. As we know from his letters, Paul saw it as a chance to demonstrate the true fraternal unity of Christians, bridging any divisions among them. He set on foot a large-scale relief fund, to be raised by voluntary subscription from members of the churches he had founded. He recommended a system of weekly contributions (Rom. 15. 25-28; 1. Cor. 16. 1-4; II Cor. 8. 1-9, 15.). The raising of the fund went on for a considerable time and there was now a substantial sum in hand to be conveyed to Jerusalem. He was to be accompanied by a deputation carefully composed, it appears, to represent the several provinces.  (I Cor. 16. 3 f; Acts 20. 4). The handing over of the relief fund was to be an act of true Christian charity and also a formal embassy from the Gentile churches affirming their fellowship with Jewish Christians in the one church (Rom. 15. 27).


The goodwill mission, thought to have taken place in AD 59, dramatically miscarried. Paul’s reception by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, if not unfriendly, was cool. James was thoroughly frightened of the effect his presence in the city might have on both Christian and non-Christian Jews, in view of his reputation as a critic of Jewish ‘legalism’. He urged Paul to prove his personal loyalty to the Law by carrying out certain ceremonies in the temple (Acts 21. 20-24). Paul was quite willing, but unfortunately, he was recognised in the temple by some of his enemies, the Jews of Asia, who raised a cry that he was introducing Gentiles into the sacred precinct (Acts 21. 37-29). There was no truth in the charge, which could have resulted in the death penalty, but it was enough to raise rabble, and Paul was in danger of being lynched. He was rescued by the roman security forces and put under arrest. Having identified himself as a Roman citizen, he came under the protection of the imperial authorities (Acts 21. 30-39) and was ultimately transferred for safe custody to the governor’s headquarters at Caesarea (Acts 23. 23-33). Following lengthy wrangles over jurisdiction between the Jewish Council and two successive Roman governors during which Paul remained in solitary confinement, he exercised his citizen’s right and appealed to the emperor, fearing that he might otherwise be delivered back into the hands of his enemies in Jerusalem (Acts 25. 1-12). Accordingly, he was put on board a ship sailing for Rome, then famously and dramatically shipwrecked off Malta.

After these events, Jerusalem began to lose its position as the centre of the church. According to a report by the fourth-century historian Eusebius, Jewish Christians withdrew from Jerusalem in AD 66, before its fall, and settled at Pella, a city in Decapolis. Jerusalem did not regain its importance for Christians until the fourth century when it became a place of pilgrimage. Indigenous Jewish Christianity lived on but became increasingly a backwater, of little more than historical significance.

Jewish into Christian Apocalyptic Literature:

The ideas of a messiah who suffered and died, and a kingdom which was purely spiritual, were later to be regarded as the very core of Christian doctrine, but were far from being accepted by all the early Christians. Ever since the problem was formulated by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer at the end of the nineteenth century, experts have been debating about how far Christ’s own teaching was influenced by Jewish apocalyptic literature. The celebrated prophecy recorded by Matthew remains significant whether Christ really uttered it or was merely believed to have done so:

For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

It is not surprising that many of the early Christians interpreted these things in terms of the apocalyptic eschatology with which they were already familiar. Like so many generations of Jews before them, they saw history as divided into two eras, one preceding and the other following the triumphant advent of the Messiah. That they often referred to the second era as ‘the Last Days’ or ‘the world to come’ does not mean that they anticipated a swift and cataclysmic end of all things. On the contrary, for a long time great numbers of Christians were convinced not only that Christ would soon return in power and majesty but also that when he did return it would be to establish a messianic kingdom on earth, and that they confidently expected that kingdom to last, whether for a thousand years or for an indefinite period.

Like the Jews, the Christians suffered oppression and responded to it by affirming ever more rigorously, to the world and to themselves, their faith in the imminence of the messianic age in which their wrongs would be righted and their enemies cast down. Not surprisingly, the way in which they imagined the great transformation also owed much to the Jewish apocalypses, some of which had indeed a wider circulation amongst Christians than amongst Jews. In the Book of Revelation, Jewish and Christian elements are blended in an eschatological prophecy of great power. Here, as in the Book of Daniel, a terrible ten-horned beast symbolises the last world-power, the persecuting Roman state, while a second beast symbolises the Roman provincial priesthood which demanded divine honours for the Emperor:

And I stood upon the sand of the sea and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having… ten horns… And it was given to him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given to him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life… And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth… And he doeth great wonders… and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by means of those miracles which he had power to do…

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war… And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations… And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse…

And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast… and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years…

At the end of this period – the millennium in the strict sense of the word – there follow the general resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgement, when those who are not found written in the book of life are cast out into a lake of fire and the New Jerusalem is let down from heaven to be a dwelling-place for the Saints forever:

And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal…


From the Liber cronicarum of Hartmann Schedel, with woodcuts by Michel Wohlgemuth and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. Nuremberg, 1493. (British Museum)

Religious movements which expect that the second coming of Christ as a cataclysmic event, or series of events, as shown above, are generally called Adventist. These have arisen throughout the Christian era but were particularly common after the Protestant Reformation, as described in Norman Cohn’s seminal work of 1957, The Pursuit of the millennium.  One of the most popular of these views is that the rapture of the church, as described in 1 Thessalonians 4-5 occurs just prior to the seven-year tribulation when Christ returns for his saints to meet them in the air. This is followed by the tribulation, the rise of the Antichrist to world-rule, the return of Christ to the Mount of Olives, and Armageddon, resulting in a literal thousand-year millennial reign of the Messiah, centred in restored Jerusalem. The original meaning of millenarianism was therefore narrow and precise. Christianity has always had its own eschatology, in the sense of a doctrine concerning the last times, or the last days, or the final state of the world, so that Christian millenarianism was simply one variant of Christian eschatology. But the early Christians already interpreted the prophecies in a liberal rather than a literal sense, in that they equated the martyrs with the suffering faithful, i.e. themselves, and expected the second coming in their lifetime. There have always been countless ways of interpreting the millennium and the route to it. Millenarian sects and movements have varied in attitude from the most violent aggressiveness to the mildest pacifism and from the most ethereal spirituality to the most earthbound materialism.


Above: Melchior Lorch: the Pope as Satan-Antichrist, 1545 (Courtauld Institute of Art).

‘Mainstream’ Protestants reject this literal interpretation. For example, instead of expecting a single Antichrist to rule the earth during a future Tribulation period, Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers saw the Antichrist as a present feature in the world of their time, fulfilled in the papacy. In theological terms, this mainstream branch of Christian eschatology is referred to as Historicist. Its adherents, whilst holding to a belief in a literal second coming of Christ, as given in the Apostles’ Creed, would regard the signs referred to in scripture as symbolic, and the events as relating to past, present and future events in the history of the church.

Eschatology and the Fundamentalist Right in the USA Today:

By comparison, in the Dispensationalist view, History is divided into (typically seven) dispensations where God tests man’s obedience differently. The present Church dispensation concerns Christians (mainly Gentiles) and represents a parenthesis to God’s main plan of dealing with and blessing his chosen people the Jews. Because of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, Jewish sovereignty over the promised earthly kingdom of Jerusalem and Palestine has been postponed from the time of Christ’s first coming until prior to or just after his Second Coming when most Jews will embrace him. Those who do not will suffer eternal damnation, together with the non-believing Gentiles. There will then be a rapture of the Gentile church followed by a great tribulation of seven (or three-and-a-half) years’ duration during which Antichrist will arise and Armageddon will occur. Then Jesus will return visibly to earth and re-establish the nation of Israel; the Jewish temple will be rebuilt at Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Christ and the people of Israel will reign in Jerusalem for a thousand years, followed by the last judgment and a new heaven and a new earth.

This view is also held by most groups that are labelled Fundamentalist, believing in the literal and inerrant truth of the scriptures. The more politically active sections within this eschatological view often strongly support the misnamed Christian Zionist movement and the associated political, military and economic support for Israel which comes from certain groups within American politics and parts of the Christian right. They have recently given strong support to the election campaign of Donald Trump, and it is widely believed that they have been influential in his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the modern-day state of Israel as a prelude to moving the USA’s Embassy from the current political capital, Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem.


Above: Maps of Jerusalem and its environs from a pre-1948 Bible concordance.

Below: A Map of Palestine and Transjordan from the same concordance


This decision has, of course, confirmed the Fundamentalist-Dispensationalists of the United States in their belief in an End of Time eschatology, which is, at best, at variance with ‘mainstream’ Judao-Christian beliefs. Moreover, the idea of basing the ‘business of good government’ and international diplomacy in the twenty-first century on a literal interpretation of the apocalyptic texts of the first century is, I would argue, completely antithetical to a genuine understanding of the true history of Israel, Judah, Jerusalem and Palestine throughout the ages. More seriously, it is also at least as likely to ‘trigger’ nuclear Armageddon as any of the near-apocalyptic events of the Cold War, whether they were ideological or accidental in cause and catalyst. Already, Trump’s decision has alienated moderate opinion not just in Palestine and the Middle East, but throughout the world. Having survived an ‘accidental’ nuclear catastrophe over the second half of the last century, we now face Armageddon by the ideological design of the White House in Washington. Is this really what the people of Israel and Jerusalem want? I don’t think so because I don’t hear so. In the meantime, all we can do is to honour the age-old commandment, Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem. Amen to that!


Robert C Walton (ed.)(1982), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages. Chapter 1. St Alban’s: Granada Publishing.

Kristin Romey (2017), The Search for the Real Jesus in National Geographic, December 1917, vol. 232, No. 6.

Alan T Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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