The reformer Zwingli in disputation with Anabaptists, 1842 lithograph.
The reformer Zwingli in disputation with Anabaptists, 1842 lithograph. e-rara / ZB Zürich

Margret Hottinger of Zollikon in her own voice

Members of the Anabaptist movement in and around Zurich were persecuted and executed for their convictions during the Reformation. They continue to be disparaged and stereotyped to this day. But a look at the historical sources reveals a different picture ‒ that of a defiant movement in which women also played a key role.

Joël László

Joël László

Joël László is an author and translator who works at the University Library Basel.

Let’s begin at the end. The chronicle recorded by Fridolin Sicher of St. Gallen reports that a group of men and women were taken prisoner in Waldsee, north of Ravensburg, on 26 May 1530. They were accused of Anabaptism, a practice punishable by death since 1529 in the lands ruled over by Emperor Charles V. Anabaptism has its origins in the reformation movements of the 1520s. Adherents of the various denominations of Anabaptism share a common opposition to infant baptism, believing instead that baptism should represent a free profession of belief in Christ and, therefore, be performed as an adult. In Switzerland, a number of Ulrich Zwingli’s erstwhile supporters and students broke away to form their own Anabaptist community.
Anabaptists being taken captive at a gathering in the Grüningen district in May 1526.
Anabaptists being taken captive at a gathering in the Grüningen district in May 1526. e-manuscripta / ZB Zürich, Ms B 316, fol. 245v
But let’s go back to the group that was arrested: six men were put to the sword shortly thereafter, including one Jakob Hottinger from Zollikon near Zurich. Sicher’s chronicle goes on to relate how one of the women, sentenced to death by drowning, was thrown into the water. She was pulled out again at the last moment to give her one final chance to recant. However, the woman merely said: “What are you doing pulling me out? The flesh was almost overcome.” It is a horrifying scene. But a remarkable one in that her last words ‒ the words of a woman, no less ‒ are recorded for posterity.

From the records of interrogation

In all likelihood, the drowned woman was Jakob’s sister Margret Hottinger, like him an Anabaptist. Her life story can only be reconstructed in fragments. But what all the surviving sources clearly reveal is her expressive way with words. Margret Hottinger, along with a number of other Anabaptist women from Zurich and Eastern Switzerland, spoke her mind. And that created a serious problem for both the reformers and the authorities. The first of Margret Hottinger’s testimonies comes from the records of interrogation kept by Zurich’s city council. She and all of the city’s notable Anabaptists were arrested at the end of 1525, thrown into prison and interrogated. She was given a choice: recant, pay a fine and be set free, or stand firm and be thrown into the Wellenberg Tower, on a diet of bread and water. Other prominent members of the movement such as Martin Linck and Michael Sattler backed down. Margret Hottingerin von Zollikckenn – the sources tell us – gitt ir antwurt [Margret Hottinger from Zollikon gave her answer]. And, in today’s language, that reply sounded something like this: “I cannot say who exactly induced me to be baptised. Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz came to Zollikon and read from the Bible. No one had been baptised until Jörg Blaurock came; he was the first. So, I too asked to be baptised. But I know nothing of any conspiracies or intrigues.” Margret Hottinger remained steadfast. The interrogation continued throughout that winter. In the next set of transcriptions we read:

If you can prove to me that infant baptism is legitimate, then I will recant. Then and only then.

Margret Hottinger
And, true enough, the Bible does not contain one single reference to baptising babies, which is why even Zwingli was not initially opposed to adult baptism. However, following a number of public ‘disputations’ on the subject, the reform movement in Zurich turned against the idea, gave its full support to infant baptism and began inflicting harsher punishments on those intent on practising Anabaptism. Margret Hottinger was interrogated again on 5 March 1526. Once more she replied: “I stand by my baptism, which I hold to be right and good. Whoever is rebaptised will be saved, and whoever does not believe in it and opposes it, such a one is a child of the devil.”
A disputation on the practice of rebaptism held in Zurich’s town hall on 17 January 1525 was more akin to a hearing.
A disputation on the practice of rebaptism held in Zurich’s town hall on 17 January 1525 was more akin to a hearing. e-manuscripta / ZB Zürich, Ms B 316, fol. 182v
Her statement is followed in the records by the testimony of another woman, Winbrat Fanwiler from St. Gallen. And she expressed herself even more resolutely: “What God, the heavenly Father, has not planted must be rooted out and burned in the eternal fire. Where is word to be found in the scriptures that infants ought to be baptised? That is precisely why infant baptism is not right and the baptism we accepted is right.” Two days later the city council tightened the screws when it issued a new judgment: “The Anabaptists (…) are to be placed together in the New Tower prison and given nothing more than bread and water to eat, and bedded on straw. The guard who watches them must swear an oath not to allow anyone in or out. Thus let them die in the tower and be left to rot. Let it then be the business of each one to forsake their opinions and errors and be obedient.” Margret Hottinger, together with other Anabaptists, continued to resist the pressure for almost two months before finally turning, admitting the error of her ways and being released. However, this did not mean that she had abandoned her faith. Margret and her brother Jakob immediately moved on to Eastern Switzerland, accompanied by Winbrat Fanwiler.

The words of women from the mouths of men

Words from this period have also been passed down to us, but this time they sound different, strange. Our sources are no longer court records and transcriptions, but reports and letters written by men and addressed to men. In his Chronicle of St. Gallen, Johannes Kessler testifies that Margret Hottinger “lived a very disciplined way of life, so that she was deeply loved and respected by the Anabaptists”. However, the tone changes abruptly in the very next sentence, becoming more hostile. Kessler writes that Margret Hottinger proclaimed “I am God!” aloud in St. Gallen. He goes on to state that she forgave the sins of others with the words: “He who prays, sins.” He also claims that she spoke in tongues, as if directed by God. Kessler’s chronicle devotes several pages solely to the words and deeds of women. Winbrat Fanwiler, who shared a prison cell with Margret, also makes an appearance but has now suddenly changed her name to Martha. He writes of one Verena Burmerin that she foamed at the mouth, spoke in a chilling voice, shook and proclaimed openly: “I must give birth to the Antichrist!” A certain Barbara Mürglen then joined the fray, crying “Woe is me!” before falling to the floor. Recovering, she reportedly exclaimed: “What have we done, oh what have we done!” Her face shone and she was perspiring so heavily that the others had to undo her belt and remove all her clothing until she was left completely naked. In another scene from the chronicle, Barbara Mürglen and Verena Burmerin are preaching in the nude before a group of men. We learn from Kessler that one of these men, casting a glance at the women’s private parts, wished to himself that they would cover them up. But Verena Burmerin was able to read his mind and so went to him and punished him.

Zwingli gets involved

Men inviting punishment from naked women – and it didn’t stop there. The ripples this provoked in learned male circles spread ever wider. None other than Zwingli himself wrote to the theologian Vadian demanding an exact report of what was happening among St. Gallen’s Anabaptists. “A messenger named Johannes Hess came to me,” wrote Zwingli, “and told me with his own mouth the following: The Anabaptists had started to develop polygamous behaviour, that is, many were exchanging partners and having sex with the partners of others, and doing it right before the eyes of their own men or with permission from their wives. Indeed, I would like some information about something along this line, that is, concerning a woman, who had been honourable and respected until now, who people are saying got naked on the street and put her hand on her own crotch, and was ranting religious dictums, such as ‘I have died to my own body and flesh and now live in the spirit, therefore everyone may use me as they like’.” Zwingli goes on to report how he came to hear that five Anabaptist men had been burned at the stake near Appenzell after committing homosexual acts. He closes his version of the event with the words: “Look where that gets you!”
Anabaptist Felix Manz, who also features in Margret Hottinger’s testimonies, being drowned in the Limmat river on 5 January 1527.
Anabaptist Felix Manz, who also features in Margret Hottinger’s testimonies, being drowned in the Limmat river on 5 January 1527. e-manuscripta / ZB Zürich, Ms B 316, fol. 284v
These accounts are almost certainly a wild mix of fact and fiction. However, it is the overly clichéd portrayal of the sexual excesses that sets alarm bells ringing. We must therefore ask ourselves whether this might not be more a case of male correspondents being overwhelmed by their own fantasies while indulging in defamatory propaganda. The manner in which the scenes are presented, and the stylistic choices made, speak a clear language, leading us to surmise that the speech acts of the first female Anabaptists stirred up deep-seated fears. To overcome these fears and legitimise their own actions, the ruling elite turned to a tried-and-tested device: sexual debasement. We can see traces of the momentous impact of these derogatory and stereotyped images of the Swiss Anabaptist women in the recent Zwingli biopic. And we encounter them all too clearly in Gottfried Keller’s novella on the subject, Ursula. On the one hand, we cannot fail to note the Zwingli kitsch, a monument to his statesmanship, such as when reference is made to the reformer’s “bright, pleasant Toggenburg dialect” and his “agile use of language”. But what happens when the Anabaptist Ursula opens her mouth? A “sensual fire” glows in the woman’s eyes, a fire that is at the same time “the flame of delusion” And her words? They remain wholly unintelligible.
Influenced by the historical sources: the TV adaptation of Gottfried Keller’s novella Ursula – a 1978 Swiss-GDR co-production – caused a scandal in both countries, partly due to its scenes of promiscuity. YouTube / ARD Video
This sexualised portrayal of Anabaptist women creates a hierarchy ‒ or rather, in this case, it re-establishes one. Because whoever has the power to express themselves intelligibly controls the narrative. And all those incapable of making themselves understood are at their command. Thus, it is high time that we paid far more attention to how Margret Hottinger – along with many other Anabaptist women – gave her answer. The scandalmongering sources make it only too easy for us to lose sight of the fact that, during the early days of the Anabaptist movement in Zurich, people at lower levels of the hierarchy nevertheless resoundingly succeeded at times in carving out more freedom to speak and act.

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