1563 was probably not a good year to be alive in Germany. Martin Luther’s hammering of his 85 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg had led to nearly a half-century of warfare between the Emperor Charles V and the Lutheran princes. It had ended, for the time being, with the agreement at Augsburg that whoever was the ruler, that would be the religion (cujus regio, ejus religio). The power of the Emperor had been challenged and was found to be wanting. Charles V abdicated and retired to the monastery at Yuste in Spain, leaving his son Philip II to lead the Catholic powers, and his brother, Ferdinand I to try and hold the Holy Roman Empire together.
There had, however, been a much more fundamental challenge to the authority of the princes to rule. The “Holy Poor”, under the leadership of Jan Van Leyden, seized the city of Munster and spat their defiance at Pope, Emperor and Princes, both Lutheran and Catholic. Like the Peasants’ Revolt in England, in the reign of Richard II, and the Jacqueries in fifteenth century France, this was a direct challenge to the authority of the ruling classes. It was a precursor of both the French and Russian revolutions, and this is the background that Neil Mackay uses for his story of the trial of Europe’s first recorded serial killer, Peter Stumpf, who, at the time, was assumed to be a werewolf.
The story revolves around the determination of one man to conduct Stumpf’s trial , in accordance with the rule of law, and without superstition. This, however, does not suit the political agendas of many people in Bideburg, where the trial is taking place. The local well-off want the Stumpf family exterminated so that they can seize their land. And the representative of the Church wants to assert the power of the Prince-Bishop’s spiritual, not temporal, power by assuming the seat of judgement. And the temporal judge is a child of Munster, of the rebellion, of the “Holy Poor”, and the seed of that revolution is deep within him.
Neil Mackay is a brilliant storyteller. He uses the device of an aged academic at Glasgow University remembering this dreadful incident of his early manhood, and writing it down so that the tale is not forgotten. If you are squeamish, this tale is not for you. And that will be your loss.
The siege of Munster was one of the most traumatic incidents in the history of the Reformation, indeed in European History. It was a predecessor of the Diggers and the Levellers of 17th century England, of the Jacobins of 18th century France and of the revolutionaries of 19th and 20th century Russia. Its ideology contributed to American independence, the emancipation of the slaves and the whole campaign against colonialism. It is one of the most significant events in European history, and it is not known.
Partly, this is because it is an embarrassment. The Baptist Church that emerged from Munster was only able to survive because, under the leadership of the Dutchman Menno Simons, it repudiated everything that Munster stood for, except adult baptism. The modern left does not look to Munster because of its religious millenarian fervour. But nor knowing about Munster means that we do not know where we have come from, and this means that we learn nothing.
Neil Mackay gives us, through the trial of a so-called werewolf, a terrifying glimpse into the dark heart of the European soul. And that is something that our recent history as a continent, over the last three hundred years, is something that we badly need.
This is a book that should not be ignored. It is truly essential reading.