Death in Münster

The seventh chapter of the novel L’Œuvre au Noir by Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) is entitled La mort à Münster (Death in Münster). It includes a vivid description of the bizarre theocracy established by the Anabaptists in the German city of Münster in the years 1534-1535.

Marguerite Yourcenar, L’Œuvre au Noir

The novel’s protagonist, the physician, philosopher and alchemist Zénon, does not appear at all in this chapter, but from a brief passage earlier in the book we already know of his ambivalence towards the Anabaptists:

“As soon as he reached the main road, he was confronted with the noise and cries of the century. A band of excited country folk was running with buckets and pitchforks. A large isolated farm was burning, set on fire by one of those ever-present Anabaptists who mixed hatred of the rich and powerful with a peculiar form of the love of God. Zénon commiserated contemptuously with these visionaries leaping from a rotten boat to a leaky boat and from a secular aberration to a brand-new mania, but his disgust at the turgid opulence that surrounded him put him, in spite of himself, on the side of the poor.” (page 53)

In 1534, the Anabaptists managed to evict the ruling Prince-Bishop and take control of the city of Münster. While the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie fled in panic, the poor and down-trodden from all over the Netherlands and northern Germany descended on Münster to support their fellow Anabaptists and participate in the long-awaited City of God.

In Münster, “all things in life were now different, easy, simplified. The fruits of the earth belonged to everyone, like the air and the light of God. Those who had linen, dishes or furniture carried them out onto the street for sharing. Everyone, loving each other with a rigorous love, helped each other, rebuked each other, spied on each other to warn each other of their sins. Civil laws were abolished, the sacraments were abolished; the noose punished blasphemies and carnal faults. Veiled women slipped here and there like great restless angels, and the sobs of public confessions could be heard in the square.” (page 87)

Although the Anabaptists were recruited mainly from the ranks of the poor, they also had a few wealthy supporters such as Hilzonde, the mother of Zénon, and her husband Simon Adriansen, who was not Zénon’s father.

Shortly after the arrival of Simon and Hilzonde in Münster, the troops of the Prince-Bishop arrived and took up positions around the city “without attempting an assault but ready to stay as long as it might take to starve the rascals out.”

In the beleaguered city, one of the Anabaptist leaders declared himself King, took sixteen wives (including Hilzonde) and ordered frequent days of fasting to conserve the provisions stored in the city’s cellars and granaries. “Killing was commonplace. The King eliminated cowards and lukewarm individuals before they could infect others. Besides, each death saved a ration.” (page 89)

After a long siege, the desperate Anabaptists in the city had a brief moment of hope when Protestant regiments flying the flag of the Prince of Hessen appeared on the horizon. “But soon these regiments began fraternizing with the episcopal troops which surrounded Münster.” The Lutherans and the Catholics, who were at each other’s throats on most issues, were united in their determination to annihilate the Anabaptist rabble — which, after a few more weeks of siege, they proceeded to do.

Prinzipalmarkt in Münster (Westfalen)

The above quotations from L’Œuvre au Noir are my translations from the original French. The author, Marguerite Yourcenar, would not have approved. She always insisted that her life-long partner Grace Frick was the only authorized translator of her writings into English.

L’Œuvre au Noir was published in France in 1968, and Grace Frick’s translation soon appeared in English as The Abyss.

In 1980, Marguerite Yourcenar became the first woman to be elected to the Académie française (aka ‘the immortals’), which until then — ever since its founding in 1635 — had been a rigorously male-only institution.

My photos in the post are from 2009. I wrote the text in 2021.

See more posts on Münster (Westfalen), Germany.
See also: Johannes Casimir welcoming visitors to Heidelberg.

9 thoughts on “Death in Münster”

  1. I love history so much. It really floats my boat. I’m fascinated at what came before me, and truly feel if you listen, wherever you stand has its own heartbeat…even one of yore. I always appreciate you LIKING my essays. Susannah

  2. MY’s note on the novel: “In alchemical treatises, the formula L’Oeuvre au Noir, designates what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist’s process, the separation and dissolution of substance. It is still not clear whether the term applied to daring experiments on matter itself, or whether it was understood to symbolize trials of the mind in discarding all forms of routine and prejudice. Doubtless it signified one or the other meaning alternately, or perhaps both at the same time.”

    1. When I first read the novel, I was surprised (considering the title) at how little emphasis is placed on alchemy. Zénon is first and foremost a physician, second a philosopher (which is what landed him in the crosshairs of the inquisition) and only occasionally an alchemist. (Also, there are just a few scattered references to astrology, though it is implied that he produced horoscopes for his prominent patients during long stretches of his career.)

  3. Sounds like a great book! Truth can be stranger than fiction and fiction based on truth stranger still. Good that the twenty-first century does not hold the patent on unruly and impassioned mobs!

    1. I certainly find it a great book. It was recommended to me several years ago by a Belgian friend (a lot of it takes place in Bruges, Belgium), and I am now reading it again, even though I just wanted to look up a couple of quotes for this blog post.

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