The price of belonging: negotiating Anabaptist inclusion and exclusion in the northwestern Holy Roman Empire, 1535-1744
Lowe, Jessica Carole
Far from the idealized eighteenth-century discourse on “toleration,” the process by which early modern Anabaptists won any level of societal inclusion was characterized by pragmatic financial concerns and extensive legal and political negotiation. Anabaptists were deemed extralegal immediately after their emergence in 1525, and quickly became synonymous with the fear they inspired. This fear derived from both their heretical rejection of infant baptism and their seditious threat of violence. After the 1535 collapse of the spectacular and shocking Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster, these fears were emphatically confirmed. Yet in the northwestern empire, the place that had played host to this dramatic realization of Anabaptism’s uproarious potential, both Anabaptist identity and the material ramifications of that identity were immediately contested in petitions and in court. These deliberations would continue over the next two hundred years as Anabaptists and self-defined Mennonites found that they could settle in some communities for a negotiated price, a “protection fee” or extraordinary tax. Not only did these negotiations begin much earlier than the idealized toleration discourse indicates, the precarity they reveal extended much later than acknowledged by the conventional narrative. Throughout this period, Anabaptists quite literally negotiated the practicalities of their own inclusion, and had little recourse when authorities decided to change the terms. Property dispossession or taxation increases could occur at any time, and although persecution gradually receded it never entirely disappeared. This inherent instability prompted Anabaptists and their extra-confessional allies to make increasingly bold claims on inclusion, culminating in the assertion of a near-Protestant identity in the century after the Peace of Westphalia. It was therefore the need for material security which pushed the discussion of toleration forward, rather than Enlightenment virtues of progress and reason. Rejecting enduring modernization narratives, I argue that the sixteenth century held surprising room for Anabaptist negotiation, while the eighteenth century proved dangerous for Mennonite communities with decades of peaceful settlement. Tolerance was nothing more than a specific set of people, policies, and protests, and individuals fought for it, pragmatically, in every instance.