THE STORY OF THOMAS MÜNTZER
His father had been hanged. Dropped into the void like a sack of feed. They’d had to carry him on their shoulders at night; then he made not a sound, his mouth full of earth. After that, everything had caught fire. The oaks, the fields, the rivers, the white bedstraw on the embankment, the barren soil, the church, everything. He was eleven years old.
At age fifteen, he had formed a secret league to oppose the Archbishop of Magdeburg and the Church of Rome. He read the Epistles of Clement, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Papias’s Fragments. With several comrades, he praised God’s marvels, crossed the Jordan in a dressing gown; afterward he traced the cosmic wheel (a sign of assembly) on the ground in chalk and they each lay on it in turns, arms outstretched, so that Heaven might descend to Earth. And then he remembered the corpse of his father, the enormous tongue like a single, desiccated word. “I was filled with joy, but one unites with God only through terrible suffering and despair.” That’s what he believed.
They say that in Stolberg, there was a vintner by the name of Barthol Munzer. And they still talk about a Monczer Berld and a Monczers Merth, but nothing is known about them. There is also a Thomas Miinzer, killed in a bar brawl. We don’t know if he got hit in the face with a fist or a log, nor do we know if he was related to Thomas Müntzer, the one whose father, around 1500, for reasons unknown, was executed on the orders of the count of Stolberg—some say hanged, others say burned.
Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed, flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, between the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal. They had arranged them in wooden trays. Hands had plucked out one, then another, and composed words, lines, pages. They had moistened them with ink and a great force had slowly pressed the letters onto paper. They had repeated this procedure dozens and dozens of times, before folding the sheets into signatures of four, or eight, or sixteen pages. They had put them in sequence, glued them together, sewn them, bound them in leather. They had made a book. The Bible.
And so, in the space of three years, they had made one hundred eighty copies, where in that time a single monk could have made only one. And then the books had multiplied like maggots in a corpse.
Now, young Thomas Müntzer read the Bible, grew up with Ezekiel, Hosea, Daniel; but they were Gutenberg’s Ezekiel, Gutenberg’s Hosea, Gutenberg’s Daniel. And after passing through the rotten, yawning gate that scraped the ground, he spent long hours downstairs in the old kitchen, rubbing his eyes. He didn’t know what he was seeing or what he was supposed to see. He was solitary like a thief, and innocent.
Time passed. He lived with his mother, no doubt frugally. His heart hurt. Beneath the oaks, the pines, on the poor soil of the Harz Mountains, as he chased after pigs with the other children, he must have suddenly stopped short, alone, feeling foolish, and wept. Yes, I imagine him on the edge of a river of small black pebbles, the Wipper, perhaps, or the Krebsbach, no matter; or else on the flanks of sad little summits of chaotic rock, eroded cliffs, shabby peat bogs, in the Bode or Oker valley, suffocating in a mix of bitterness and love.
Finally, he enrolled as a student in Leipzig, then became a priest in Halberstadt and Brunswick, then a provost here and there, then, after considerable tribulations among the Lutherite plebeians, he emerged from his hole in 1520, when he was named a preacher in Zwickau.
Outside the borders of Saxony, hardly anyone knows Zwickau. It’s just another backwater. Zwicker means pince-nez; Zwickel means gusset; Zwiebel, onion; and zwiebeln, to harass or bully. But Zwickau means nothing, or else it means onionskin, poor slobs, good business, yes, that’s what Zwickau means: poor slobs and good business. For in Zwickau they wove, they wove a lot, they wove for the whole world, for people in Frankfurt and Dresden; back then, they say, even in Paris some people slept on Zwickau sheets. And on top of that, in Zwickau they dug the earth, exploited the mines. And so, right after the Welsers and the Fuggers come the burghers of Zwickau.
The burghers heard Müntzer preach at St. Mary’s church, as a temporary replacement for Johann Sylvanus Egranus. When Egranus returned, they appointed Müntzer to St. Katharine’s, a parish of weavers and miners. There, he mixed with the Zwickau reformists Nikolaus Storch, Mark Stübner, and Thomas Drechsel. That shadowy trio was raising holy hell, wallowing in ecstasy, visions, and dreams, waiting for those moments when the Good Lord would speak to them directly. The great squabble was over whether or not to advocate voluntary, conscious baptism. Oh, it might sound a bit old-fashioned, this notion of baptism, this rationalism of lunatics, this Aufklärung of cruets. But it was a reaction to corruption in the Church, the irrationality of the doctrine and the sacraments. For the lunatics of Zwickau were reading something other than Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; they were reading Erasmus and Nicholas of Cusa, Raymond Lully and Jan Hus. They debated, argued, yearned to stand naked before the Truth.
And so the city was divided. On one side were the patricians of St. Mary’s, on the other the plebeians of St. Katharine’s. Reason and purity would be for the poor. It was before them that Müntzer began to agitate; it was there that his wound intensified. He spoke. They listened. He cited the Gospels: “You cannot serve both God and money.” He believed he could read the scriptures simply, take them literally. He believed in a pure, authentic Christianity. He believed it was all set down in black and white in Saint Paul, that all the essentials could be found in the Gospels. That’s what he believed.
And this is what he preached to the poor weavers and miners, to their wives, to the destitute of Zwickau. He quoted the Gospels and added exclamation points. And they listened to him. And passions began to stir, for those weavers knew full well that if you pulled at a thread the whole tapestry would unravel; the miners knew that if you dug deep enough, the whole tunnel would collapse. And so they began to realize they’d been lied to. They had long felt troubled and afflicted; there were many things they didn’t understand. They had a hard time understanding why God, the God of beggars, crucified between two thieves, needed such pomp. Why his ministers needed luxury of such embarrassing proportions. Why the God of the poor was so strangely on the side of the rich, always with the rich. Why his words about giving up everything issued from the mouths of those who had taken everything.