The Blasphemy of Jan of Leiden: A research plan

The Blasphemy of Jan of Leiden is the oldest text by Menno Simons, and it indicates that he was an early opponent of the Anabaptists of Münster. This, at least, has long been the consensus view about early Mennonite history. A challenge for researchers, however, is that the oldest copy of The Blasphemy is from 1627. This post introduces a project to find out more about this 1627 text.

A good statement of the consensus view is found in Cornelius Krahn’s 1957 article on Menno Simons in The Mennonite Encyclopedia:

This [defending “the evangelical truth” against the Anabaptists of Münster] Menno did, not only in preaching from his pulpit and in personal contact with the people, but also through a writing which was to be the first of many. Jan van Leyden, who had assumed the blasphemous role of a “Second David” of the “New Jerusalem” at Münster, was the reason for this writing entitled The Blasphemy of Jan van Leyden. The pamphlet, which was not printed until 1627, was written after the defeat at Bolsward but before the defeat of Münster, with the intention of publication. But Münster collapsed, and Menno left the Roman church; hence the urgency and possibility of having it published diminished (Writings, 33).

The debate about The Blasphemy was quite active in the late 19th century among Dutch scholars, and it has been revived recently in a Research Symposium published in the October 2015 edition of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, which includes contributions from Willem de Bakker, Helmut Isaac, and James Stayer. The basic question to which the three provide different answers is: “When and why was The Blasphemy written?” One possibility is that the text was not Menno’s earliest text but rather an early 17th-century forgery, created with the purpose of clearly the Mennonites of guilt by association with the reviled memory of the Anabaptists of Münster.

The new research into the 1627 text has two main parts.

  1. Brookelnn Cooper, a research assistant with the Amsterdamnified Project, will be searching for the text’s printer. Brookelnn will be working in Amsterdam in the summer of 2017, where Dr. Paul Dijstelberge will  introduce her to the methods of typographical and bibliographical research to identify anonymous printers. Learning more about the printing office that was responsible for producing the text may allow us to make some inferences about the interests behind its production.
  2. The other part of the plan is to analyze the text of The Blasphemy using digital tools. The first step is to transcribe the text into a computer-readable format. For this purpose, I am setting up a transcription tool that will soon be ready on this website. Anyone who is able to read the old type accurately and is willing to put in some time is welcome to contribute to this work. Once we have a complete transcription of the short book, we can try applying the methods of stylometric analysis. For more on this methodology, see
  • Christof Schöch, “Fine-Tuning our Stylometric Tools: Investigating Authorship and Genre in French Classical Drama,” Digital Humanities Conference 2013, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 15.-19.7.2013; and
  • Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey RockwellHermeneuti.ca: Computer-Assisted Interpretation in the Humanities (companion-website to the book Hermeutica, published by MIT Press in 2015).

There are at least two copies of The Blasphemy available online:

One on GoogleBooks;

And the other at the website of the Library of the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The viewer below shows this second copy.

I will be updating this page as the project progresses.