Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Anabaptists in Seventeenth-Century Schleitheim: Popular Resistance to the Consolidation of State Power in the Early Modern Era

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Anabaptists in Seventeenth-Century Schleitheim: Popular Resistance to the Consolidation of State Power in the Early Modern Era

Article excerpt

Abstract: There are numerous studies on the history of the Anabaptists in the Swiss Confederation in the first half of the sixteenth century. Less known, however, is the fact that their traces can also be found well into the seventeenth century. At this time fundamental changes in the organization and enforcement of stare power were taking place. In the aftermath of the reformation and the Council of Trent, authorities throughout much of Europe attempted to create a socially unified and religiously purified state. This new modernizing state came into conflict with more traditional ways of life, especially at the level of the villages. The experience of the Anabaptists in Schleitheim provides an illustrative example of this conflict and helps us to assess the extent and success of this process of state centralization.

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Even after their apparent extermination in the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists never completely disappeared. To the contrary, they survived in isolated regions of the Swiss Confederation well into the seventeenth century where, with increasing intensity, they came into conflict with governmental efforts to unify and enforce power under the rubric of territorial and religious consolidation ("confessionalization") on the eve of the Thirty Years' War. At stake was the growing intensity of political authority (Herrschaftsverdichtung) as a central theme in the history of the early modern era. To understand this process, the concept of Herrschaftsdurchdringung (consolidation of state power) needs consideration. That concept includes a focus on the various expressions of governmental politics, the "re-positions" and impositions of governmental claims to sovereign authority, and the reactions--especially from the peasant estate and, more generally, from feudal subjects (2)--that ensued from these efforts. (3) Looking at the city-state of Schaffhausen one can make several observations on this process by using the example of the Anabaptists.

The history of the Anabaptists in the first half of the sixteenth century has been studied intensively, as attested by the Anabaptist archival records for the territories of the Swiss Confederation that appeared in numerous editions in the 1960s and 1970s. (4) Accordingly, our understanding of the Anabaptists during the Reformation era has deep and broad foundations. (5) Less known, however, is the fact that the Anabaptists by no means disappeared when the first wave of persecution came to an end in the middle of the sixteenth century. And it is even less known that their traces can still be found, albeit sporadically, well into the seventeenth century. (6) A comprehensive history of the Anabaptists in the seventeenth century remains to be written. In 1941 Karl Schib published an archival record about the Anabaptists in the city-state of Schaffhausen, but without mentioning the provenance of the source. (7) The record concerns a court hearing in 1642 of an Anabaptist who lived in Schleitheim, a village that already had many Anabaptist adherents in the sixteenth century. (8) If one looks a bit more carefully into this source, it quickly becomes clear that this document represents only the crest of a wave of Anabaptist activity that culminated in the first decades of the seventeenth century. (9) Thus, the four documents published in the appendix of this essay stand in close relationship to this court transcript and to the events occurring at that time.

The first document is a letter of June 2, 1640 from the Reformed pastor at Schleitheim and Beggingen, Theodosius Indikofer, to the then town clerk (Stadtschreiber) Emmanuel Forrer, in which the pastor expressed himself in regard to the Anabaptists in Schleitheim. The second document presents a report written by the council clerk (Ratschreiber) Georg Michael Wepfer from June 7, 1640, in which he describes his conversation with the Anabaptists in Schleitheim where he had been sent by the authorities (Gnadigen Herren). …

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