One winner (best adapted screenplay) in the 2023 Oscars is Women talking, a film adaptation of the novel by the Canadian author Miriam Toews, a fictional response to real events that took place in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. When I first heard about this it prompted me to look into the history of the Mennonites. I was fascinated by the numerous moves groups of them had made during the last 500 years. This blog post will look at some of the main migrations during that time and also consider the Mennonites’ Low German dialect, Plautdietsch, which they have preserved across the world. The UL has a huge number of resources, both print and online, on the Mennonites, showing that their beliefs, culture and language are of great interest to researchers.
The name Mennonite was used to refer to Dutch Anabaptists (there were others in Switzerland and Germany) and was derived from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest who turned away from Catholicism and became a leader of the Anabaptist movement in the Low Countries during the time of the Reformation (Anabaptist simply means “one who is baptised again”, referring to the belief that baptism of infants was wrong and that only adults who could knowingly profess their faith should be baptised). Mennonites in the Netherlands were regarded as heretics and were suppressed and persecuted not just by the prevailing Catholics but also by other Protestants.
In 1660 a huge book, Het bloedig tooneel, of martelaers spiegel der doops-gesinde of weereloose Christenen, was published by Thieleman van Braght. This contained accounts of the Christian martyrs from the time of Christ to the 1500s and also graphic stories of the many Anabaptist martyrs. The University Library has a copy of the 1685 second edition (4.36.6) with etchings by Jan Luyken, some too gruesome to show here. The images below (click on each to see enlarged) show the title page and illustration together with an excerpt from the first page of the index, giving martyrs’ names and how they were killed (verbrand=burnt, verdronken=drowned, onthoofd=beheaded, levendig in de aerde gedolven=buried alive).
Here also are four of the etchings, including perhaps the most famous one depicting the story of Dirk Willems who was chased by persecutors, one of whom fell through the ice that Dirk had successfully crossed. He turned back and rescued the man but was promptly arrested and later burned at the stake.
The book was translated in the 19th century as the Martyrs’ Mirror (available online) and became an important inspirational book for Mennonite households alongside the Bible.
The 16th century persecutions led to many Mennonites emigrating to the Vistula delta in and around Gdańsk (Danzig), then in the Kingdom of Poland. The Mennonite communities there were tolerated and respected for more than 200 years, working farmland they had created by draining wetlands along the river. Their situation changed towards the end of the 18th century when the area in which they lived came under Prussian rule after the 1772 First Partition of Poland. Mennonites tended to have large families, and the high birth rate meant that they had a pressing need for more land. But the Prussian authorities would grant no more land to those who refused to serve in the military and the Mennonites were pacifists. This made the offer of free land to new settlers which Catherine the Great had made a few years earlier very attractive indeed. Large numbers headed southeast to New Russia, north of the Black Sea in what is today Ukraine.
The Mennonite population in Russia continued to grow, and thrived there as the rich soil was very suitable for growing wheat which was in great demand across Europe. An interesting first-hand account is given in A Mennonite in Russia: the diaries of Jacob D. Epp, 1851-1880 translated and edited by Harvey L. Dyck (online). Epp was a third generation Russian Mennonite, the first in his family to be born there.
By the 1870s some Mennonites chose to leave Russia. There was growing pressure to assimilate with the Russian population, and Russian was required to be taught in all schools. Mennonites had earlier been given certain rights and privileges such as exemption from military service but this came under threat with the passing of a law in 1874 making military service compulsory, clearly not compatible with their pacifism.
Most who left Russia travelled to North America, many to Manitoba in Canada. Again we have valuable first-hand accounts of everyday life in From the inside out: the rural worlds of Mennonite diarists, 1863 to 1929 edited and with an introduction by Royden Loewen (online). The book enables us to learn about the lives and culture of a wide cross-section of the Mennonite community through diary entries of 21 ordinary people.
Further emigrations from what was by then the Soviet Union occurred in the 1920s following the terrible famine of 1921-22 and later on throughout the 20th century when religious freedom was under threat. Meanwhile some of the settlers in Canada were experiencing difficulties in their new land which led them to move to various places in Latin America.
In 1915 legislation in Manitoba sought to promote greater national unity through standardisation of education, including the use of the English language in schools. Some of the more conservative Mennonites perceived this to be a threat to their way of life, and so from the 1920s onwards headed south, in particular to Mexico and Paraguay where they were allowed greater religious freedom and more control of their own schools.
The Mennonites’ Plautdietsch dialect developed in the Vistula delta area and contained elements of Dutch and German. It is still spoken today by some descendants of the people who moved from Poland to Russia and onwards. It is mainly a spoken language but one significant attempt at writing it down is a 2005 version of the Bible which the UL has a copy of (BSS.229.2.G05.1). Here, to illustrate linguistic similarities and differences, is Psalm 23 in Plautdietsch, alongside traditional versions in English (King James version), German (Luther Bible) and Dutch (Statenvertaling).
Books in our collections which are detailed studies of linguistic intricacies of the dialect, offering analysis of grammar and vocabulary, demonstrate how widely across the world Plautdietsch has recently been in use, with individual volumes dealing with speakers in e.g. Canada, Mexico, Paraguay, Russia and Ukraine:
- Studien zum Wortschatz der kanadischen Mennoniten by John Thiessen (in 779.c.53.37)
- Sprache und Sprachgebrauch der Mennoniten in Mexiko by Carsten Brandt (775.c.99.170)
- Die plautdietsche Sprachinsel Fernheim/Chaco (Paraguay): Dokumentation des Sprachverhaltens einer russlanddeutschen Mennonitenkolonie by Kai Rohkohl (9002.d.5128)
- The Altai dialect of Plautdiitsch : West-Siberian Mennonite Low German by Rogier Nieuweboer (775.c.99.611)
- Mundart und plautdietsche Jeschichte : ut dem Orenburgschen en ut dem Memritjschen (Russlaund) by Heinrich Klassen (9003.d.5172)
If you are interested in hearing Plautdietsch spoken I can recommend searching on YouTube where there are many suitable videos.
I had never heard of the Mennonites till I read your article. I love how instead of causing conflict with the cultures around them, they stuck to their pacifist views and moved to a new location to preserve their ways instead. Sometimes moving to a new location can preserve a culture even more than staying in a place. People who need to move countries cling tightly to their language and culture and work so hard to preserve it for future generations, as it gives them comfort. I was sad to read about Dirk Willems rescuing the man who fell through the ice, and then being burned at the stake. Thank you for the article, Katharine.