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The Tailor-King

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Anthony Arthur's The Tailor-King is a masterful account of what happened both inside and outside the ancient walls of sixteenth-century Munster when Protestant religious fervor transformed otherwise intelligent and rational men into irrational creatures capable of unbelievable brutality. While the threat posed to modern society by religious fundamentalism has been underscored by the events of September 11, The Tailor-King reminds us that suicidal craziness is not just limited to extreme followers of Islam. The graphic descriptions and concrete imagery bring the sixteenth-century fully alive and when combined with the author's meticulous research and gift for storytelling they create a rare pairing of erudition and page-turning readability.

Munster is a solid, bourgeois kind of place and in the 16th Century it seemed equally so. An important trading centre, it showed its considerable wealth in its merchants' mansions and warehouses, its churches and impressive cathedral. The beginning of the Reformation saw the city split into Catholic and Lutheran interests, but it continued to function until a group of Anabaptists, regarded as heretics for their insistence on adult baptism, gradually seized control of the town. Eventually they drove out the majority of other believers and the ranks of Munster swelled with Anabaptists from other areas, particularly Holland. A charismatic leader, a former baker named Jan Matthias, was one of these. Jan van Leyden, another Dutch Anabaptist, had called him to Munster and a group led by a wealthy local merchant. Together they declared war on the local Prince-Bishop and were rewarded with a siege of their fortified town. Deemed heretics by pretty well everyone, Catholic and Lutheran, the Anabaptists were determined to hold out, seize the countryside and establish a New Kingdom of Zion.

Anthony Arthur describes the Company of Christ as starting off as a well-disciplined, effective organization and he gives us some background on the Anabaptist movement, which was divided into pacifists (Mennonites and similar groups) and the militants. As the siege wears on, the Company of Christ takes some strange directions. From a city council, it moves to Council of Elders and then to essentially a religious dictatorship. Property is to be held only in common, criticism is rewarded with summary death. All the church towers are destroyed. Jan Matthias challenges the Bishop's army to single combat, with foreseeable results, and Jan van Leyden takes over. He now makes polygamy obligatory and arranges to crown himself King. The people starve, when their leaders are not personally murdering them, and the Bishop's soldiers outside kill those who try to leave. The whole thing comes crashing down when the Anabaptists are betrayed and the city taken. Jan van Leyden and the other most senior leaders are tortured to death and their corpses put on display in cages that are still to be seen on St. Lambert's Church in Munster though the bones have been removed. Interestingly, the cages are original, but the church itself is not.

This book is only 244 pages long. Although Mr. Arthur has looked at many sources it is clear that he has had to make an effort to flesh the book out. There are some diversions into Freud and theories that the Company of Christ was a sort of proto-Nazi organization and a long digression into the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. I doubt that the Anabaptists were particularly Nazi-like, but exhibited many of the characteristics of a totalitarian system, more similar to Chinese Communism

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