This piece is part of our feature on ‘Apocalypse Then and Now’, bringing together radical reflections and historic perspectives on catastrophe and calamity. How have crises (both real and imagined), and responses to them, shaped our world?
At the end of 1527 the Anabaptist Hans Römer thought the end of the world was nigh. Along with his fellow believers, Volkmar Fischer, Niklas Hoffman and Christoph Peisker, he preached to anyone who would listen that the apocalypse was imminent. Only eleven months remained until God’s final judgement and those not counted amongst ‘the elect’ would suffer. The group plotted to take over the city of Erfurt in central Germany on New Year’s Day (Fig. 1). A diversionary sermon by Römer would allow Hoffman to enter the city, banging drums, lighting fires, and creating confusion, and then Erfurt would be remade into the New Jerusalem.
Anabaptists, those who controversially rejected infant baptism, were not alone in feeling that the world had fundamentally changed in the early decades of the sixteenth century. A powerful strain of apocalyptic thought accompanied religious reform in early modern Europe. Martin Luther’s challenge to the Catholic church went hand in hand with profound alterations in social and communal structures. Something had shifted, and for some, this signalled divine eschatological judgement. People looked for ways to interpret the transformed world around them, an urge with which it is not hard to empathise in 2020. But what did it actually mean to believe you were living though the End Times?
Christian visions of the Last Days rested on certain biblical passages: Christ’s prophecies in Matthew 24:3-13 and Luke 21:5-32, warnings of the Antichrist in 1 John 2:18, and the visionary nightmare-like narratives of the Book of Revelation. In a time of turbulent change, people looked for and found the signs that these prophecies would come to pass. The year 1500 was already invested with apocalyptic significance, and millennial expectations intensified with the religious and social upheaval of the Reformation. Christ’s words in Matthew seemed to have particular resonance: ‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.’
Thomas Müntzer, the firebrand preacher who became a radical leader in Mühlhausen during the Peasants’ War of 1524-1525, certainly thought the end was coming. He delivered a shocking sermon to the Saxon princes in 1524 where he unequivocally stated his belief in the impending apocalypse. He warned that the ‘process of ending the fifth monarchy of the world is in full swing’, and if the princes did not wield the sword of divine justice, it would be turned against them. He combined biblicism with eschatology and a powerful critique of contemporary social and political hierarchies. Müntzer’s dreams of a different world inspired peasant armies to rise up, only to be defeated at the battle of Frankenhausen in May 1525, but his subsequent execution did not mean the end of apocalyptic visions. Strands of his thought persisted amongst Anabaptist groups who had heard him preach in central Germany and beyond.
One of his followers, Hans Hut, missionised throughout Franconia and Thuringia in the period 1525-1527 and prophesised the end of the world. In a work on baptism Hut wrote: ‘the last and most dangerous age of this world is now upon us’. The elect, by which he meant the downtrodden, would judge the godless, and a true baptism of suffering would distinguish the saved from the damned. Hut even cast himself as the avenging figure mentioned in Ezekiel 9 (Fig. 2). Another Anabaptist preacher, the furrier Melchior Hoffman, also took up the mantle of biblical prophet. Surrounded by apocalyptic visionaries in Strasbourg such as Lienhard and Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock, Hoffman saw himself as the reincarnation of Elijah. His visions of the Last Judgement laid the groundwork for perhaps the most famous apocalyptic experiment of sixteenth-century Europe – the Anabaptist takeover of the city of Münster from 1534. Eschatological prophecies abounded, but how did people live with the belief that they thought the end of the world was approaching?
The apocalypse is filled with the thumping of drums, the call of trumpets and the slashing of the sword. Violence, bloodshed and noise would accompany the end of the world, but until it arrived perhaps the most universal underlying experience was tense, expectant waiting. The German artist Albrecht Dürer eloquently expressed the oppressive sense of expectation that filled waking and sleeping thoughts. In June 1525 he dreamed of a great flood: ‘I had this vision in my sleep and saw how many great waters fell from heaven.’ Floods were a common sign of the apocalypse and Dürer’s dream, recorded during the turmoil at the end of the Peasants’ War, seems to be filled with the fear of impending heavenly judgement. He rushed to remember the dream in image as well as words, and his watercolour sketch of the dreamscape vividly depicts oversized drops of precipitation and a mushrooming column of rain (Fig. 3).
An intense period of chronological expectation exists in the gap between the time when eschatological calculations are made and the predicted event. Martin Luther was not the most apocalyptic of the sixteenth-century reformers, but his Supputatio of time (first published 1541) captures this anticipation. His chronology, based on the assumption that the world would continue for 6000 years, concluded that 1540 marked the halfway point in the sixth and final millennium. Only 500 years stood between the present day and the end of the world, and Luther continued the timeline beyond 1541. Whilst the end of days was still some way off, there was something unnerving about the way the work mapped the blank space of future time (Fig. 4). When the apocalypse was believed to be more imminent, it shaped immediate decisions and actions. The oppressive intensity of this visionary limbo is evident in the responses of ordinary people who listened to Anabaptist preaching. Anstad Kemmerer, who had heard Römer teach, worried that time was short, and that he might fall from grace. As he commented with winning simplicity, ‘that would not be good’. Apocalyptic waiting was not a still silence but a pregnant pause of expectant fear and hope which inspired action.
Groups made ready for the apocalypse, taking over towns or preparing for the coming of Christ with repentance and preaching. Augustin Bader joined the Anabaptist movement in Augsburg in 1526 but following brutal repressions in the city in 1528 he withdrew into a private apocalyptic fantasy. Gathering his few followers, he rented a mill near Blaubeuren and proclaimed his infant son as the Messiah, whilst his associates made splendid robes and gold insignia including a crown and sceptre. The experiment was short-lived, however, soon discovered and repressed.
Bader’s response to his belief that the world would end in 1530 was strange and unsettling, but he was reworking prophecies and stories that he had heard from Hut and other preachers, some ideas only half heard or understood, mixing his own visions with scripture and Kaballah. Apocalyptic fears often spread this way. Someone listens to a rumour from somewhere, hears news from elsewhere, notes a sign interpreted; people gossip and discuss, as communities and individuals fashion a response.
In Münster, Anabaptists took dramatic action to usher in the age of revelation. Enforced polygamy has become the most infamous decision taken by the Anabaptist regime, but all of social, political and religious life was reordered along eschatological lines. Leader Jan of Leiden styled himself as a new King Solomon; streets, squares and churches were renamed so Munster resembled the New Jerusalem; legal reforms were enacted, books burned; and a new patriarchy established with twelve elders to guide the city (Fig. 5). The theologian of the new regime Bernhard Rothmann proclaimed that ‘The Kingdom of Christ has begun in Münster’.
The end that never comes
Münster was an almost unique attempt to realise an apocalyptic future in the present. All visions of the apocalypse look forward in time. Sometimes the future was close at hand, sometimes more distant, but for Anabaptists, it involved not just religious reckoning, but economic and social levelling. There existed the hope of change and something better, even if it came at a cost. Anabaptist apocalyptic dreams, though, came to nothing. The kingdom of Münster was defeated, the date set by Roemer passed without event, and Bader was arrested and executed. Anabaptists counted down to the end of days but it never arrived, disappearing like an infinitely receding horizon.
But the fact that the apocalypse is a constantly moving and re-imaginable future is part of its power. Apocalyptic fictions which imagine a world after cataclysmic events are popular in the twenty-first century, perhaps particularly now, although our future visions are often bleak and barren world rather than Edenic and fulfilled. How do any of us know if the apocalypse has really come? And what do we do if we think it is nigh? From heavenly comets and religious change to fires in Australia and deadly viruses, we interpret signs. From making crowns for the Messiah to panic buying, we try to respond. The early modern world of Anabaptist eschatology is very different from contemporary anxiety but the productive, tense stillness of waiting and watching whilst assessing what we fear, or hope could be the end of world as we know it still resonates.