Things were not going well in Münster (in present-day northwestern Germany) as of June 1534. The previous year, local Anabaptists, their ranks swollen by arrivals from the Netherlands and elsewhere, seized full control of the city. In February, a prophet named Jan Matthias had taken charge, whereupon Catholics and most Lutherans were stripped of their possessions and expelled from the city. That same month, Münster’s Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck began a protracted siege of the city. In April, on Easter Sunday, Matthias announced that God had instructed him to challenge the bishop’s army on his own. With only a few guards, he rode out in full armor and was promptly slain. The bishop’s troops placed his head on a pole before a city gate.
Matthias’s death did not end the standoff. Another Jan (Jan van Leyden, sometimes John Bockelson in English-language accounts) used his own charismatic gifts to gain power. It was a brutal time, with van Leyden beheading and otherwise killing potential threats to their leadership. In May, the bishop’s cannons began assaulting Münster, though without rapid success.
In mid-June, a fifteen-year-old girl named Hille Feyken (or Feiken) added her own strange and ultimately bloody chapter to the tragic saga of Anabaptist Münster. She left the city on June 16, having — according to chronicler Herman Kerssenbrück — “enhanced her already general attributes of beauty” with fine clothes and jewels. She brought with her a handsome shirt made for the bishop, soaked in poison. Taken to the bishop’s high bailiff, she faced an interrogation. She told him that she and her husband were disillusioned with their preachers’ teachings. She wanted safety for herself and her husband. In return, she would reveal all she knew about the city’s defenses, and she would show the bishop’s commanders a secret entry into the city. They would conquer Münster without a single casualty. The bailiff decided to take her to see van Waldeck.
Unfortunately for Hille Feyken, another resident of Münster sought asylum at the same time. He offered a more timely gift than a fancy shirt. He warned the bishop that Feyken was lying, that Münster’s leaders had given her the jewels and fancy clothing, and that the shirt was poisoned. Subjected to torture, Feyken revealed that the story of Judith had inspired her to try to save her city.
As my co-blogger Philip Jenkins noted last summer, the Book of Judith is not found in the Jewish Tanakh or in Protestant Bibles (unless included with the apocryphal literature), but it is found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. As one can glean from the story of Hille Feyken, it was part of the popular imagination. According to George H. Williams, author of the magisterial Radical Reformation, Feyken heard the story while at worship.
Judith was a widow in the town of Bethulia, north of Jerusalem. According to a story few scholars regard as historical, the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar sent his general Holofernes to punish those people who had refused to support his war against the Medes. All peoples submitted to Holofernes save Judea, and only Bethulia stood in the general’s way. After a long siege, the town’s defenders were ready to surrender ,which they intended to do should God not rescue them within five days. Judith denounced the idea of testing God and chose to save her town and people on her own.
“Give to me, a widow,” Judith prayed, “the strong hand to do what I plan.” She reminded God whose side he supported: “you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope.” Then she took off her widow’s clothes of mourning and dressed in fine clothes and jewelry. Quite simply, she was on a mission of seduction, having “made herself very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all the men who might see her.” Holofernes and all of his troops were enticed.
Judith told Holofernes that she had abandoned her people because they were prepared to use consecrated grain, wine, and oil in order to stay alive during the siege. She, by contrast, had brought her own wine and foodstuffs on her mission. She promised to deliver Judea to its enemy.
Holofernes could not resist. “If we do not seduce her,” he told his eunuch, “she will laugh at us.” invited to the king’s tent, she dressed herself in her finest, and went to Holofernes. They drank and ate, and “Holofernes was greatly pleased with her.” So pleased that he drank more wine than he had ever done before. While he slept, Judith took his sword, grabbed his head, and cut it off. Her maid placed the head in her food bag, and they went back to Bethulia, where the town’s elders placed it on a parapet. The Israelites then defeated their enemies, who were paralyzed with shock. At the victory celebration, Judith “went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women, while all the men of Israel followed, bearing their arms and wearing garlands and singing hymns.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out so well for Hille Feyden. She lost her own head, and Münster plunged deeper into its nightmare of oppression before eventually falling to the bishop’s forces.
Readers might take many lessons away from Judith: the need to carefully observe ritual requirements, God’s fidelity toward the underdog faithful, the heroic tale of a woman outwitting her nation’s enemy. As Hille Feyden’s sad demise instructs, however, it’s best to limit one’s attitude toward Judith to admiration rather than imitation.